Richard Barancik, last of the World War II Monuments Men, dies at 98

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Richard Barancik, last of the World War II Monuments Men, dies at 98
In a family photo, Richard Barancik during his military service in World War II. Barancik, the last surviving member of the Allied unit known as the Monuments Men and Women, which during and after World War II preserved a vast amount of European artworks and cultural treasures that had been looted and hidden by Nazi Germany, died on July 14, 2023, in Chicago. He was 98. (Barancik family via The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Richard Barancik, the last surviving member of the Allied unit known as the Monuments Men and Women, which during and after World War II preserved a vast amount of European artworks and cultural treasures that had been looted and hidden by Nazi Germany, died July 14 in Chicago. He was 98.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Jill Barancik.

Barancik (pronounced ba-RAN-sick) was one of four members of what was formally called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015 in Washington for their “heroic role in the preservation, protection, restitution of monuments, works of art and artifacts of cultural importance.”

On the day of the ceremony, Barancik told the Los Angeles Times: “The Americans cared about the cultural traditions of Europe. We did everything we could to salvage what the Nazis had done. It’s the best we could do.”

An Army private first class, Barancik served in England and France — where he was not on the front lines, his daughter said, and enjoyed the marching, food and structure of military life — until Germany surrendered. After being deployed to Salzburg, Austria, he volunteered for the Monuments Men, serving for three months as a driver and guard.

The Monuments Men and Women were composed of about 350 people — among them museum directors, curators, scholars, historians and artists — whose missions included steering Allied bombers away from cultural targets in Europe; overseeing repairs when damage occurred; and tracking down millions of objects plundered by the Nazis and returning them to the institutions, and the countries, they came from.

Barancik, who later became an architect, had an interest in art. He had drawn cartoons for his high school newspaper and found it thrilling to see churches and other buildings in Europe. But as a Monuments Man, he probably did not see many of the paintings, sculptures and other artifacts he was guarding and transporting to an Allied collection point; they were in crates.

“Someone might have said, ‘There’s a Vermeer in there,’ and he knew the art was important or valuable,” said Robert Edsel, the founder and chair of the Monuments Men and Women Foundation, who interviewed Barancik and 20 other survivors of the unit for his book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” (2009, with Bret Witter). The book was adapted into the 2014 film “The Monuments Men,” which George Clooney directed and starred in.

Edsel said that Barancik was cautious during their two interviews, surprised at the interest in a short-term Monuments Man who, unlike his more experienced colleagues, did not have an artistic specialty.

“He seemed more curious about me being able to put into perspective what he had done, as if he didn’t realize where he fit into the overall picture,” Edsel said by phone.

Jill Barancik said that her father “was very embarrassed at the attention” he received for being given the Congressional Gold Medal.

“He didn’t feel like a hero,” she said by phone. “He said, ‘I was a kid, I was there for three months. It’s wrong for me to take credit.’ But I’d tell him, ‘You were a witness, you're representing the people who aren’t with us anymore.’”

Edsel recalled that after the ceremony, Barancik told him, “I’m so deeply appreciative of what you and the foundation have done, and it’s an honor beyond my ability to express it.”

Richard Morton Barancik was born Oct. 19, 1924, in Chicago. His father, Henry, was a family physician and served as the chief of staff at South Shore Hospital; his mother, Carrie (Graiwog) Barancik, was a homemaker and played piano for ballet classes.

After his time as a Monuments Man, Barancik remained in Europe to study architecture at the University of Cambridge, in England, and the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. On returning to the United States, he entered the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in the late 1940s.

In 1950, he opened an architectural firm, Barancik, Conte & Associates, with one of his design instructors at the University of Illinois. The company designed private homes, office towers, suburban office complexes, bowling alleys, schools and luxury apartment buildings.

“I really practice architecture seven days a week, all my waking hours,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “It’s an all-consuming profession.” He retired in 1993.

In addition to his daughter Jill, Barancik is survived by two other daughters, Cathy Graham and Ellie Barancik; two sons, Robert and Michael; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His marriage to Rema Stone ended in divorce, and his marriages to Claire Holland and Suzanne Hammerman ended in their deaths.

One of the benefits of the attention that came to Barancik as a Monuments Man was the correspondence he received.

“He’d get fan mail and, once a week, an autograph request,” Jill Barancik said. “He’d get sensitive letters from people, lots of them from schoolchildren, which kept the conversation going.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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