Ernst Billig, the youngest of two children, was born in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, on March 30, 1935. His parents, Gusti and Abisch Billig, were transplants from Brody, Austria seeking opportunity. Abisch was a feather merchant, selling feathers for pillows and quilts. Ernst’s sister, Rita, was two years older.
Soon after Ernst came into the world, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and eight months later, the family synagogue was burned to the ground during the events of Kristallnacht. That night, the Gestapo forcibly entered the Billig home, and Abisch was arrested. Miraculously, he was released three days later and told to leave the country — or else. He fled to Switzerland with plans to send for his family, but instead, he was interned in a work camp as an illegal immigrant.
Gusti, suffering from breast cancer and hoping to provide a safe future for her children, made a decision that no mother ever wants to have to make — she registered her children for the Kindertransport. Gusti died a year later.
Ernst was only four years old when he and his sister boarded the train to England. It was July 12 1939. His only memory of this traumatic separation was the placard around his neck and the tears they both shed. Years later, visiting Auschwitz as an adult, Ernst saw the mountains of brown suitcases and was reminded of his own suitcase, carefully labeled “Ernsti Billig,” that took him to a very different fate.
Ernst and Rita were both placed in Christadelphian (“Friends of Christ”) homes in Coventry, where they remained for seven years. Ernst found a loving home and came to know Harold and Marjorie Moore as “Unc” and “Mum.” Even with the strict war rationing, Ernst never recalled wanting for anything, even food. He joined the family in their church activities, yet all the while, was encouraged to maintain his Judaism.
The day before Ernst and Rita arrived in Coventry, Aunt Nesche Billig Schattner had arrived to be near her husband, Philip, who was awaiting his US visa in the Kitchener Refugee Camp in England. Aunt Nesche became a vital family link for the children and even visited Coventry on occasion. She was working to bring the children to the US, so when her visa came through in the Spring of 1940, and they had to say goodbye, it was a huge crush. The plan was for the Schattners to get settled in the US and send for the children, but with the war raging, that would not happen until six years later.
By 1946, Aunt Nesche had made all the arrangements for the children’s immigration. Even though this was expected, when the time came, it did not make the goodbyes any easier. As Rita said, once again “we were torn away from everything we had grown to love.” Ernst remained in touch with the Moores, and every year on his birthday, Marjorie would send him a marzipan-covered fruit cake with icing. After six weeks by boat from England, the cake was like a rock, but Ernst was touched that she never forgot his birthday. Ernst and Rita returned to England to visit their foster families several times over the years. In 1989, at the time of the 50th Reunion of the Kindertransport in London, the Moores met Ernst’s wife, Nancy, and stepson, Michael (then age seven).
Birmingham was a world apart from England when Ernst arrived. It was a miserably hot summer, and the polio epidemic was raging. But most shocking was “how black people were treated in Alabama relative to the UK.” It was an adjustment that Rita was never able to make.
Nesche and Philip felt it very important that the children be religiously Jewish. First on the agenda was for Ernst to learn the mourner’s kaddish and recite it on the anniversary of his mother’s death. Ernst said that he “became Jewish in Birmingham,” especially after he learned the significance of what was happening in Europe. In 1948, Ermst became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El.
Abisch Billig was finally able to leave Switzerland in 1947. His reunion with his children was an emotional end to years of suffering, but Ernst was never able to develop a strong bond with his father. After Abisch and ultimately Rita moved to New York, Ernst was adopted by Nesche and Philip so he could legally attend public school.
Ernst graduated from Ramsay High School in 1952, then from Birmingham Southern College in 1956, the last year he lived with Aunt Nesche and Uncle Phillip. He attended graduate school at Northwestern and received a PhD in chemistry, then went on to Columbia University for post-doctoral work. He enjoyed a 36-year career with Union Carbide in Charleston, West Virginia, where he met his wife, Nancy Scher. Nancy was a colleague of Ernst’s first cousin, Bob Silber, and in 1988 they were married. Ernst was a wonderful father to Nancy’s three children that they raised together, and in turn, his family became the sustaining force in his life that brought him the most joy. He vowed to give his children what he never had, and he did exactly that.