Never able to forget the hardships his parents faced at the Nazi death camps, suicide prevention advocate commits suicide

By Cathy Free
Updated August 14, 2015 10:15 AM
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Credit: Courtesty Melissa Stoner

For the past year, suicide prevention advocate Peter Wollheim was awakened by bad dreams about the Holocaust and its effect on his Jewish parents, who had survived the Nazi death camps.

Finally, in mid-July, the 67-year-old Boise, Idaho man did what he’d passionately urged others not to do for years: He took his own life.

Wollheim, a founding board member of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network and a retired Boise State University communications professor, was found by a friend at his Boise home on July 21, several days after his death with a note, saying that he was “tired of having Holocaust dreams” and that “he was done with life,” his sister, Ruth Wachter-Carroll of New York City, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“Peter had been very depressed for years, but didn’t seek therapy, even though he knew firsthand what people go through and how important it was for them to get help,” says Wachter-Carroll, 64, a paralegal who is Wollheim’s only sibling. (Her and Peter’s parents, Norbert and Frieda Wollheim, who survived death camps in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, are now deceased.)

“My brother was a very giving human being,” she says, “but there was a part of him that wasn’t able to receive. People had a hard time reaching out to him, and as a result, he lived a very isolated life.”

While Peter was a good listener and urged others to get help for their depression, says Wachter-Carroll, he came from a generation that saw seeking therapy as a weakness.

“We had German parents and crying was never an acceptable action, even though he was such a sensitive guy,” she tells PEOPLE.

“My dad used to tell him, ‘Take it like a man,’ ” she says. “Toward the end (of his life), Peter was experiencing terrible shaking from the medications he was on and it was debilitating to him. He was living alone and could not even drive himself. For a guy who was always so independent, I know that must have been devastating.”

Depression among children of Holocaust survivors is common and can haunt them for life, says Stanley Rustin, a Manhattan psychologist who has written several books and papers on the subject and knew Norbert and Frieda Wollheim.

“It’s no accident that the second generation continues to experience trauma to this day,” Rustin tells PEOPLE. “Their parents frequently have post-traumatic stress or depression and they have difficulty relating to their newborn children because of the trauma from the 1940s. The children are deeply affected by this.”

Rustin, who counseled Ruth at one time, had lunch with Peter last year to talk about his distress over his parents’ Holocaust experiences.

“He sought me out – he wanted to talk to me,” he says. “He saw and heard a lot growing up.”

In 1968 for example, says Rustin, when a large blizzard hit New York City, Norbert and Frieda Wollheim panicked and rushed around Manhattan to buy all the groceries they could carry.

“They were afraid the stores would run out – the snowstorm put them right back into the camps,” he says. “Their stress was triggered by previous events. And Peter and Ruth, of course, would have seen all of that.”

Until recently, Wollheim, who was single, didn’t let on that he was troubled by his parents’ heart-wrenching histories. He was fervent about suicide prevention, giving speeches nationally and internationally and starting a crisis worker preparation program – the first certified program of its kind in the country – at Boise State University, where he taught until 2012.

“Peter was a beloved part of our suicide prevention efforts and we’ll miss him very much,” Kimberly Ledwa, a counselor and Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline volunteer, tells PEOPLE. “We are saddened that he was not able to find the help he needed as he faced his own challenges.”

National suicide prevention experts are equally distressed that Wollheim chose to end his life.

“There’s no single cause for suicide, but it most often occurs when stressors exceed coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition,” Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention tells PEOPLE.

“Together, we must work to stop this tragic loss of life,” he says. “We know through research that suicide affects people from all socio-economic backgrounds as well as all races, religions and ethnicities. Everyone can play a role in the fight against suicide by encouraging help-seeking for those at risk.”

Although Wollheim had been hospitalized twice in recent years for mental illness issues, says his sister, he seemed fine the past few months when she called him.

“I’d ask how he was and he’d say, ‘Things are going well – I’m outside working in my garden, ” Wachter-Carroll tells PEOPLE.

“Later, I learned that this wasn’t true,” she says. “He rarely left the house and wouldn’t let people in. It was the same emotionally. When he was doing his suicide prevention volunteer work, he’d put on that ‘mirrored glasses’ attitude just like my parents did. ‘Everything is fine with me,’ they’d say, ‘what about you?’ They didn’t want to share what they’d gone through with us.”

Norbert Wollheim was a Berlin college student studying to become a judge when he was thrown out of his university for being Jewish, says Wachter-Carroll.

“So he trained to become a welder,” she says, “and that is what saved his life when he was sent to Auschwitz.”

Frieda Wollheim was sent to several slave labor camps including Bergen-Belsen, where she looked after her 13-year-old sister, Engelina, and helped her to survive. The Wollheims met shortly after World War II and immigrated to New York City with Engelina, where they raised Peter and Ruth.

Now 88, Engelina Billaeur lives in Los Angeles, and says that she and her late husband, Richard, were extremely close to their nephew, Peter.

“I talked to him every day and he sounded fine,” Billaeur tells PEOPLE, “but now I know it was all an act. He was such a sensitive boy growing up and I think that maybe hearing his parents talk about the Holocaust to other survivors who visited the house was hard on him. I also think that Peter was very lonely and felt like he was a burden. That’s the only explanation I have. It’s just such a tragedy all around.”

Wachter-Carroll says that nothing was more important to her brother than his suicide prevention work after he moved to Idaho 20 years ago.

“He put everything he had into it,” she says, “and he was a very good listener. People felt they could open up to him. How we all wish now that Peter had felt he could open up as well.”