Billes was born in 1925 in Vienna, Austria, the older of two sons of Jewish parents. He lived in Siebenhirten, a suburb of Vienna, with his parents on the upper floor of a two-story house owned by his parents. The house served as the family’s residence as well as the medical office of his father, a physician. His father, a graduate of the University of Vienna, was the Community Health Officer in Siebenhirten. His mother also graduated from the University of Vienna as a pharmacist.
Billes attended an Evangelical parochial school and then a Realgymnasium (a semi-private High School) in Vienna. Since there were only four other Jewish families in Siebenhirten, all of his friends were Gentiles. His family was quite assimilated and his religious involvements were very limited. Billes recalls only one anti-Semitic incidence from his childhood; being called a dirty Jew by one of his classmates.
After the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938, Jewish life changed very rapidly. The windows in the Billes’ home were smashed by Nazis while the police was watching without responding. His father’s car was confiscated by the SS and shortly after Billes’ father was removed from his medical position. The Billes were evicted from their own home and the house was confiscated by the authorities. They moved to a predominately Jewish district in Vienna where they shared an apartment with another family. Billes was expelled from his school and attended the Jewish Chayes Gymnasium. On his way to and from school he was exposed to considerable anti-Semitic taunting from other children.
During the riots of Kristallnacht, Billes witnessed the burning of a synagogue while the fire department stood idly by; the loading of Jewish men into trucks following their arrest; the destruction of stores owned by Jews. Billes’ father evaded arrest by hiding.
Following Kristallnacht their furniture was attached for non-payment of the penalty tax imposed on Jews. In order to obtain the tax clearances required for the exit visa on their passports, they were able to trade in their house for the taxes that were due.
Billes’ uncle who lived in the United States was able to obtain through bribery a visa for Billes’ father to emigrate to Cuba in March 1939. Billes, only fourteen years old, left on his own and came to the United States via Switzerland and France. His mother and younger brother went to Genoa, Italy, to await their visa. Eventually the entire family reunited in the United States.
Billes became a dentist in 1948, as did his younger brother, and later his father passed the necessary State Board examinations and resumed his medical practice.
Following the war the village of Siebenhirten, now incorporated into the 23rd district of Vienna, honored his father by naming a street after him.
Date: November 7, 1993
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Format: Video recording