There was a lull. No one would have said the sudden silence was anywhere near the peace-on-earth promise of Christmas, and while it would have been nice had Hitler presumed to take a holiday, no one thought that to be the case.
But there was a lull. Six months of fighting, from Normandy through western France, to the gay Paree liberation suggested Hitler was withdrawing from his dreams of empire, pulling back from even tiny Luxembourg, a nation no bigger than most Siouxland counties. Most believed the end was almost visible.
So, there was a lull, a December lull, and for a liberated moment, Wiltz, Luxembourg, a touristy little burg at the edge of Ardennes Forest, became fair haven for battle-weary GIs getting much-needed R and R.
The people could speak French again without risk of punishment–bonjour returned, Heil Hitler vanished. In 1942, Wiltz had orchestrated a national strike against military conscription, the entire country shut down until, in typical Nazi fashion, 21 locals were executed to bring angry populace back in line. Two long years later, hundreds of men emerged from places they’d hid to elude a Wehrmacht draft. After four long years, the terrible heft of occupation was lifted.
Once again Luxembourg was free and independent; they took great joy in their national motto: Mir wëlle bleiwen wat mir sin–“We wish to remain what we are,” which is to say, not Germany, nor France, not anything other than Luxembourg.
There was a lull, and the whole town and the GIs they were hosting were thrilled. Cpl. Harry Stutz, “a tireless optimist,” his buddies say, had an idea he passed along to others, an idea he’d come up with after visiting a local man who’d been part of the underground, a man whose seven-year-old niece came by and grabbed Cpl. Stutz’s heart, as children do.
He’d been thinking, he told others, that after four years of misery, the people of Wiltz–especially the children–needed a brace of holiday joy. “It’s the kids I feel sorry for,” he’d told a buddy named Brookins. He was recruiting. “Maybe we should throw a little party,” he said, “–you know, for the kids.”
“There’s a war going on, and you’re talking about a party?” Brookins just laughed.
“A Christmas party, a St. Nick party,” Stutz told him.
Brookins looked at him strangely. “You’re Jewish,” Brookins said.
“And we’re at war,” Stutz told him. “I’ll speak to the rabbi when it’s over.”
There was a lull, and that’s when it all began, just a week before St. Nicholas Day. As you might guess, the crazy war-time idea of doing something for the kids swelled like a clear blue sky. They’d get something akin to a costume from the local priest, dress a couple of little girls up like angels, put the three of them in a jeep, get the teachers to call off school, and run through the town as if there were no war at all.
The men scrounged through their aid packets for all the chocolate and goodies they could muster. Company cooks made donuts and cake, and Harry Stutz hair-brained idea blossomed, mid-winter, into the biggest celebration the town had since the occupation, when national celebrations ceased under penalty of law.
The 28th Division, torn-up and tattered from endless battles through France, did something extraordinary: they threw a party not to be believed or forgotten by a host of jubilant Wiltz kiddies. And it was huge. Even invitations, printed up royally: “The 28th Signal Corps. . .is happy to have the children of Wiltz as their guests for our Santa Claus Party On Tuesday, December 5, 1944.”
Stutz’s buddy Cpl. Brookins got talked into playing the central role, outfitted in broad, white robe, the local bishop’s mitre aboard his noggin—”way too tight,” Brookins said. But there they went, up and down village streets, a pied piper with a mop for a beard, collecting wide-eyed children.
The whole thing was not to be believed but loved. Stutz, the Jewish guy, pulled off one huge Christmas party for the sweetheart children of a war-torn village at the foot of the Ardennes.
Cpl. Brookins loved it, relished every moment of the party, played the role like a saint, then replayed every last gift in his mind and heart. When it was over, he was perfectly thrilled–but somehow disappointed too because no one had recognized him, no one knew it was Brookins beneath that fancy wardrobe. All were thrilled, but no one said a thing.
But if you know the story, you can’t help thinking the anonymity that cloudy December day was verifiable proof of the success of the dream a Jewish guy named Stutz had created. To the kids–and even to his buddies–for a couple of hours at least, far from home but outside of battle, Richard Brookins hadn’t been Cpl. Brookins at all. He’d been Saint Nick.
There would be more war to come. In a few days, Hitler threw everything he had at the front where there’d been a lull, even grabbed some of his veteran troops from the Eastern Front. The Battle of the Bulge followed quickly; thousands would die in the biggest single battle of the war.
But for one glorious day–and for years and years thereafter–everyone who was there in Wiltz that day remembered good old St. Nick coming up the streets and giving away candy in a beat up army jeep. It was–and still is–a Christmas to remember.
For more on the party, see Peter Lion’s American St. Nick: A True Story (2015).