December 20th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 51
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
An American St. Nick
Looking Back
Source: Peter Lion
Brookins and his angels arrive in the courtyard
It occurred to me the other day, whilst immersing myself in World War Two history, that the Christmas season overseas during that war must have been a tough time for the peoples of Europe. Tradition and celebration most often was swept aside as countries coped with the oppressive Nazi regime.

So it was gratifying to come across a wonderful story of giving that is the epitome of what this season should be about. It takes place well before our traditional Christmas, on December 5th, 1944, in the small village of Wiltz in Luxembourg.

Firstly you should know that Luxembourg is a small European country bounded by Germany to the north and east, Belgium to the west and France to the south. It is one of the smallest countries in the world at 998 square miles and is a wonderland of castles and nature forests. The ancient and beautiful town of Wiltz is in the northwest part of Luxembourg and it is there that this story unfolded.

In May of 1940 Germany occupied Luxembourg and under Nazi rule is more or less ceased to exist. Thus began a move to Germanize its population. It was an oppressive and terrible time. All official government documents were written in German, French surnames changed to German and their native language, Luxembourgish, was outlawed. Streets were renamed for Nazi heroes and holidays and customs not sanctioned by the Nazis were deemed illegal. On top of that all Luxembourg males 17 and older were forced into Germany’s military and ordered to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. If you refused your family was rounded up and shipped to work camps in Germany.
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Luxembourgers eventually rebelled against all this oppressiveness and staged a country-wide strike that originated in Wiltz. The response to this was what one would expect of the Nazis. Organizers were rounded up by the Gestapo, including four respected teachers from Wiltz. What followed was interrogation, a trial and then shipment to the Hinzert concentration camp where they were shot. It must have been a terrible time for that town.

So you can imagine what it must have felt like for these people when in September of 1944 they were finally liberated by the Americans. They were free to be themselves again and reinstate their traditions such as the previously banned celebration of St Nicholas Day, a town-wide pre-Christmas Christian celebration that focused on the children.

Against this backdrop of rebuilding of spirit and custom enter some wonderful characters by the names of Corporal’s Harry Stutz and Richard Brookins. Both were in a signal company of the 28th Infantry Division’s 112th regiment, part of the liberating force in Wiltz at the time. Stutz had befriended a local there by the name of Martin Schneider and in conversations learned of the oppressive way in which their people had been treated. He also heard that, despite the shortages and ravages of war there, they were planning to celebrate St. Nicholas Day as best as they could. For Schneider’s four year old daughter Martha this would be the first time seeing St. Nicholas.
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Stutz got an idea to throw a Christmas party for the kids – a St. Nicholas party. It would be good for the kids and for the 28th Division which was badly in need of a morale boost. The top brass of the 28th agreed. This division had suffered terrible losses weeks earlier in a dense forested area known as the Hurtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border. I have read accounts of this horrific battle fought against an enemy that had had years to prepare their defense of the area. Two thirds of the 28th, about 6,000 men were either killed or wounded at Hurtgen.

When they were finally rotated out of battle Stutz and Brookins wound up in that storybook town of Wiltz, in the foothills of the Ardennes. Stutz talked to Brookins about how it had been five years almost that: “A man dressed as St. Nick had paraded through the town and gave candy to the kids.” Then he asked Brookins to play St. Nicholas and after much persistence Richard agreed.

Stutz talked to the local priest, Father Wolff, about the details and with the help of some teachers it was agreed that December 5th, the day before St. Nicholas Day, would be the best and that the ancient courtyard of the renaissance style Wiltz Castle, that dates back to 1720, would be the place.
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So it was that Richard Brookins arrived at the castle around 2 P.M. that day where he was met by two nuns that had prepared his St. Nicholas costume. This included a beard Brookins described as: “just a piece of frayed, heavy, gnarly rope.” It also included a priest’s vestments and a homemade bishop’s mitre (head gear) and a likewise homemade crozier (bishop's staff). So off Brookins went in the jeep, flanked by two schoolgirl angels, who stayed with him for the day as they toured the boy’s school in town and led a procession through the streets.

They eventually returned to the castle courtyard where the town’s children had gathered for the party. Invitations had been hand-delivered earlier in the week and paper bags with treats and candies donated by soldiers from their army rations were handed out to the kids. Army cooks had made baked donuts and cookies and the nuns melted down Hershey chocolate bars from soldier’s rations to make hot chocolate. What followed was a program of songs, dances and poems as well as tribute to good old St. Nicholas.

It was a joyous moment for all in the midst of a terrible war. It went off beautifully but shortly afterwards things took an awful turn. Cryptographer Richard Brookins was moved north about 20 miles to a place called Clervaux which on the 16th of December was suddenly heavily shelled by part of the powerful German counter attack known infamously as The Battle of the Bulge. His regiment was forced to fall back and the 28th never did return to Wiltz which suffered yet another occupation for a time by the Germans. The town was eventually retaken but not before it was almost totally destroyed. Tragically some of its townspeople including children were killed then.
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After the war ended the citizens of Wiltz vowed to commemorate the generosity and kindness of those GIs. They included some new traditions in their St. Nicholas festival like the procession through town, the castle party with handouts for the children and each year someone was chosen to play the “American St. Nicholas.”

Thirty years after the rebuilding of Wiltz, in 1977, they decided to really go big and tracked down a then 56 year old Brookins and invited him back. Brookins got a letter he says was: “eight pages on onion skin paper, meticulously written in Luxembourg-English, asking if I would come back and do it again.”

Stutz returned with him in 1977 and through the years they and other GIs returned off and on to Wiltz for that special day. Brookin’s played the St. Nick role one last time in 2004. A somewhat frail Brookins was also there in 2014 on the event’s 70th anniversary, in a jeep, with St. Nicholas in a float behind him. An always modest Richard Brookins summed up the overall experience by saying: “I guess we did something that mattered.” Mattered indeed!

Author’s Note: When I came across this story in the December issue of the magazine America in WWII, I reached out to its author Peter Lion, a multiple Emmy winning producer, director, author and journalist to ask if I could share his amazing story and pictures. He graciously agreed and reminded me that his heart warming book “American St. Nick” is available on Amazon and that his website - https://www.americanstnick.com/ - contains much more information and pictures on this story. On his website is also a link to a video where in July of 2016 a 94 year old Richard Brookins was awarded Luxembourg’s highest military honour, The Military Medal.
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December 20th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 51
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