20 years ago, for reasons we’ve forgotten, actor John Banner was one of our very first Who2 biographies. President George Washington was ceremonially #1, but soon after that came Banner, who starred as the buffoonish and lovable Sergeant Schultz in the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
So we have soft spot for the old Austrian. While tidying up his bio recently, we discovered something strange at Find A Grave: In a photo taken in 2005, Banner’s tombstone reads “Hübner JOHANN, 1926-1988.” To quote Sgt. Schultz, “Vas ist going on here?”
Banner was an Austrian Jew who fled to the United States to escape the Nazis, so our first guess was that Johann Hübner must have been his real birth name. Johann is the Germanic version of the English John, after all. Maybe Hübner turns out to be the German word for “banner”?
Wrong. The story is a little stranger than that.
John Banner died in 1973 during a visit to Vienna, the city of his birth. “He and his wife, Christine, were in Vienna to await a shipment of furniture they had ordered for a home they had recently bought,” said his NY Times obituary. Banner was buried in Friedhof Mauer — Mauer Cemetery — in the southwest corner of Vienna. (He’s in Gruppe 57 Reihe 2 Nummer 26, if you visit.) And originally, his own name was on the grave marker.
Here’s where the twist happens:
When families no longer pay the rental for cemetery plots, the rights to place a grave stone on the plot transfer to another, so there is only a temporary marker on the Johann Hübner family stone noting that Banner also is buried there.
That’s right: in Austria and Germany, you only rent your gravesite. These are old countries and space is tight, so in the best spirit of recycling, they reuse the graves. Stars and Stripes reported on the rules in Germany:
Under German law, families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually from 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused, German cemetery officials said… “Before the grave is dug back up, the local authorities normally try to contact the survivors and ask whether the contract for the grave site shall be extended,” said Hans-Juergen Howoldt, attorney adviser for the Foreign Law Branch with U.S. Army Europe… If no family members can be reached, any remains are put in a separate container and buried deeper at the site, German cemetery officials said. Usually, however, there are no remains by the time a site’s lease has expired.
In Vienna, 10 years is apparently the more typical lease. However, it was exactly 15 years between 1973, when Banner died, and 1988, when Johann Hübner passed, so perhaps Banner’s lease was 15 years after all.
John Banner’s wife, Christine, was French. They married in 1965 and had no children. So it seems quite possible that after Banner’s original grave lease was up, Christine was either living back in her native France or had passed on herself. (We can’t find details on her death, though we did find her recipe for flambéed chicken.)
With no immediate descendants to contact, or possibly none willing to pay a fresh fee, the lease would have expired. That’s where Johann Hübner arrives in the picture. And 17 years later in 2005, at least, his family was still apparently paying the dues. (Although if they had a 30-year lease, it’s up this year!)
There’s a happy ending of sorts, though: if you look closely at that original photo, you’ll see that this placard was set neatly against Johann Hübner’s tombstone. Roughly translated, it reads:
Here is the last resting place of the actor John BANNER, 28.1.1910 – 28.1.1973, known as “Sergeant First Class Georg SCHULTZ” in the comedy series “A Cage Full of Heroes” (in English, Hogan’s Heroes). You have provided us with many memorable hours; you will live forever in our hearts. We, your fans, will never forget you.
So John Banner lives on in a Vienna cemetery, even if his name isn’t on the grave.
Special thanks to Find A Grave and photographer Robert Rohrmueller for these very helpful photos. For more about the actor, see our full John Banner biography »