Ernest G. Heppner


IUPUI Spirit of Philanthropy Award (2001)
Honorary Degree (1997)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Myles Neil Brand


Ernest G. Heppner's early life could have created an embittered, cynical adult, someone obsessed with revenge. As a Jewish youth in 1930s Germany, he faced the mounting horrors of the Holocaust. Then, after escaping to the Jewish quarter of Shanghai in 1939, Heppner suffered daily hardship under the Japanese Army's occupation, an experience he would one day document in his book Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto.

In the midst of these ordeals, Heppner developed a passion not for vengeance but for justice, a desire for enlightenment over resentment. These qualities became evident even during his years in the ghetto (1939-45), when he served in the British Army's Shanghai Volunteer Corps and led a group of British Boy Scouts. After he immigrated to the United States in 1947, Heppner continued his commitment to serving others by integrating numerous volunteer activities with a career in the rapidly advancing field of office technology. As his knowledge about typewriters grew, for example, he helped law enforcement agencies identify typewritten evidence and served as an expert witness in courtrooms.

Heppner's formal education ended when he was 14 because of the Nazis' banishment of Jewish students from public schools. He never stopped learning, however, and by the time he moved to Indianapolis in 1953, he was considered a pioneer in the electronic revolution that was redefining business and education. As a systems coordinator for Litton Industries, he collaborate in the development of application programs for the forerunners of microcomputers, and, in the early 1960s, he introduced this equipment to the Indianapolis Public Schools.

Most of Heppner's volunteer activities have combated the same kinds of violence and intolerance that he has endured. Heppner has been active in the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith at local, regional, and national levels. He received the league's Torch of Liberty Award in 1982, in 1992 the league named its community leadership award after Heppner. He has also been a board member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Inter-Religious Commission on Human equality, and the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and the chairman of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and the Indianapolis Negro-Jewish Dialogue. Dedicated to uncovering injustices obscured by the upheavals of wartime, in the 1970s Heppner spearheaded a writing campaign on behalf of US prisoners of war and missing-in-action servicemen in Vietnam. He also chaired the Indiana chapter of the National League of Families of POWs and MIAs. Simultaneously Heppner was instrumental in publicizing the story of Jan Zwartendijk, A Dutch diplomat who saved the lives of 2,000 Polish Jews.

Heppner has made many other indispensable contributions to Holocaust scholarship. For years he spoke regularly at churches, synagogues, community gatherings, and schools, recalls Professor Michael Cohen of the School of Education: "He gave numerous talks to Indiana high school seniors comparing the events in Germany in the 1930s with contemporary society, stressing the need for personal involvement in strengthening our democracy." Heppner has appeared at international conferences on the Holocaust, including one sponsored by the Austrian government and another by Harvard University.

In all of these endeavors, Heppner has, in the words of former IUPUI Chancellor Gerald Bepko, "transformed his own experiences of racism and anti-Semitism into a powerful tool for educating others about the despicable consequences of hate-mongering and the importance, the necessity, of working toward interracial, inter-ethnic harmony."