16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

RICHARD BARANCIK, aged 98

THE LAST MONUMENTS MAN

Born in Chicago, his father Henry was a physician and Chief of Staff at the South Shore Hospital who had led an American hospital unit on the Western Front during the First World War.

Dr Henry Barancik (courtesy North Western University)

Richard’s mother, Carrie Graiwog, was a Russian immigrant. She had attended a music academy in Chicago but after her marriage became a homemaker. She was a piano player for ballet classes and a keen amateur painter. It was from her that Richard got his love of art.

Richard was a poor student but loved art at school and drew cartoons for his high school magazine.

Aged 18, Richard pledged to himself that he would never smoke, would never drink alcohol and would always be honest – pledges he kept throughout his life.

After leaving school, Richard enrolled at the University of Illinois. Shortly after he had started his studies, the USA entered the Second World War. Richard left the university and enlisted in the army reserve. He was sent on an Army Specialised Training Programme (ASTP), which included studying engineering at the University of Nebraska.

In 1944, Richard was transferred to 263rd Infantry Regiment, part of the 66th division. They were sent to England.

The young soldier (courtesy St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge)

On Christmas Eve 1944, the regiment was sent to Europe to fight in the Battle of The Bulge.

Unfortunately, the convoy was attacked by U-Boats and the ship next to Richard’s, the SS Leopoldville, was sunk by a torpedo. Over 900 men were killed; 700 were from his battalion.

The battalion was so depleted that they were not deployed on the frontline in  battle but were sent to St. Nazaire instead.

His most memorable encounter of the war was when Richard was off duty and was sitting under a tree reading a book. He had just taken his helmet off. General Patten drove past in a jeep and shouted at him, “Soldier! Put your goddam helmet on.”

When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, the regiment were transferred to Marseilles. They were told they were going to the Far East, but the Japanese surrendered before they could set sail.

Richard was then attached to the 232nd Infantry Regiment based in Austria.

Then he heard about the ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives’ organization (MFAA). They were known as the ‘Monuments Men’, even though there were some women involved (they were only allowed to join after the fighting had finished).

They were an organization of about 350 people from 14 different countries: museum directors and curators, scholars, librarians, historians, lecturers and artists – and soldiers. Their mission was to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Europe during the war and recover art works looted by the Nazis.

During the actual fighting, they had directed Allied bombing away from places of cultural significance and had secreted art works away. Now the war was over, it was all about recovery.

Richard applied for a temporary job with them as a driver and guard, and was seconded for three months. They were so overwhelmed that they needed extra people desperately.

He was sent to the Education, Religion and Fine Arts office based in Salzburg.

Richard remembered, “When I arrived in Salzburg, I was not only overwhelmed by the beauty of the town but the quality of the men in the Fine Arts Section. They were typically older and very well-educated in the Fine Arts.”

One of his passions was visiting churches, not just in Austria but eventually throughout Europe. He was also in awe of the beautiful cities he saw – historical buildings which contrasted with the urban sprawl of American cities.

He worked alongside Corporal Clyde J. Davis, and they were immediately involved in retrieving art treasures. Any that were rescued were put into the repository of the Property Control Branch and guarded by Richard and Clyde.

They rescued stolen goods from castles, monasteries, caves and even mines. As well as paintings the treasures they rescued included sketches, tapestries, sculptures, ancient manuscripts, rare books, stained glass, coins – and once, even a rare butterfly collection.

The men were told another part of their role was ‘to help win over hearts and minds.”

Years later, Richard commented, “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.”

When he was released from duty, three months later, Richard went back to London, where he worked with the Royal Institute of Architects on a programme to help members of the profession assimilate back into civilian life.

After another short spell in Austria, Richard was sent back to London Area Command, where, he was allowed to attend Cambridge University part-time, and he studied architecture. He was one of 60 American servicemen allowed to attend the university under a special scheme.

He loved being at Cambridge. He went to St, Catharine’s College and rowed for their team. One race ended badly. “We weren’t very good rowers, but we were very good sinkers”.

Bertrand Russell once invited Richard to tea.

Part of Richard’s studies included a spell at the Ecole des Beaux Arts at Fontainbleau in France.

When he was was finally demobbed, Richard intended to finish his degree at Cambridge. It was not to be.

His father contacted him and said, “Come home now! There’s going to be a war with Russia (his friend, a General, had told him) – and your sister is getting married.”

Richard reluctantly went back to Chicago. “My sister ended her engagement, and we never went to war with Russia.”

He once said that he wished he had spent the rest of his life in England.

Richard really enjoyed his time in the army, despite having lost some good friends in the fighting. He appreciated the discipline of military life, the camaraderie, the long marches and the communal eating, although he never saw frontline action.

He finally completed his BA degree in Architecture and General Studies at the University of Illinois – the very place where he began his academic career.

Richard married Rema Stone and they had five children: Jill, Cathy, Ellie, Robert and Michael. The couple would eventually divorce.

In 1950, along with a friend and partner Richard Conte (his former teacher), he started his own architectural company in Chicago – Barancik, Conte and Associates.

They designed high rise apartments, office blocks, schools, shopping malls, hotels and bowling alleys. He worked there for 43 years until he retired in 1993. “I really practiced architecture seven days a week, all my working hours. It’s an all-consuming profession.”  He was a member of the American Institute of Architects.

He had always sworn that he would only build beautiful buildings like those he had seen in Europe, but ironically, he contributed to the urban sprawl of Chicago (and other cities). However, Richard was adamant his creations would always have grace and grandeur.

In retirement, Richard was a trustee of three separate art galleries. He was also a member of a tennis club.

He started to spend winters in Pebble Beach, California, where he could partake of outdoor sports, which he loved, such as flying, surfing and hiking.

Richard got married again – to Suzanne Hemmerman. Unfortunately, she died in 1995.

Then he married Claire Holland. She died in 2021 of cancer (Claire had lost two previous husbands, both to cancer).

Claire Barancik (courtesy Legacy.com)

Earlier, in 2009, historian Robert Edsel wrote a book on the Monuments Men. It was entitled, ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’.

Edswel interviewed twenty survivors of the organization, including Richard, whom he found to be extremely modest. It was the first time anybody had ever asked Richard about his wartime experiences.

Richard said, “I was just a kid. I was there for three months. It’s wrong for me to take credit.” He pointed out that he had no art specialism.

Edsel responded, “You were a witness. You’re representing the people who aren’t with us anymore.”  

He realised Richard genuinely didn’t know the enormity of what the Monuments Men had done. They had been young men, and most of the artwork they had transported or guarded had been crated up. Edsel had to continually tell Richard what an important role he had played. Richard was stunned when he was told they had rescued art work worth over £50 million.

Richard’s daughter, Jill, said, “He just felt he was such a small part of it. He was embarrassed at being held up as a hero when he felt he was not a hero.”

Jill Barancik (courtesy herself)

The book became the basis for the 2014 film, ‘The Monuments Men’, directed by and starring George Clooney.

In 2015, the MFAA were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for their, ‘Heroic role in the preservation, protection and restitution of monuments, works of art and artifacts of cultural importance.”

Richard did not want to attend the ceremony, but his children persuaded him to go. He was one of only four veterans there and was really pleased he had gone.

He told Robert Edsel, “I want to tell you that this is one of the proudest moments of my life – to be here on behalf of my colleagues.”

Although Richard was incredibly modest about his contribution, his daughter Jill pointed out that every day he received fan mail and was asked for his autograph at least once a week.

He kept drawing political cartoons, doing his last one just three days before he died.

Richard was the very last survivor of The Monuments Men. He called himself, “The Last Man Standing”.

His family said, “Richard was larger than life, a true original who defied convention. He had an impeccable eye for art and design, no matter if it was high or low. He knew what he loved…and surrounded himself with these things, whether they were paintings, ship models or miniatures.”

RIP – Recovering Impressive Paintings

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