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A Wartime Christmas Celebration in Wiltz, Luxembourg.

A wartime Christmas celebration in Wiltz, Luxembourg.
A wartime Christmas celebration in Wiltz, Luxembourg.

There was a lull—December, 1944. Six months of tough slogging from Normandy to the liberation at Gay Paree suggested Hitler was withdrawing from his dreams, pulling back from even tiny Luxembourg, no bigger than most Siouxland counties. The end was in sight.

There was a December lull, and Wiltz, Luxembourg, a touristy burg at Ardennes Forest, for a liberated moment, became a fair haven for battle-weary GIs. The people could speak French again without punishment--Bonjour returned, Heil Hitler vanished. Wiltz had suffered, orchestrated a national strike against military conscription in 1942, until the Nazis executed 21 locals to bring the anger back in line. Two long years later, when the occupation was lifted, hundreds emerged from hiding places to escape serving in the Wehrmacht.

Luxembourg stayed independent again. They took great joy in their national motto: Mir wëlle bleiwen wat mir sin--"We wish to remain what we are," not German, not French, just Luxemburgisch.

There was a lull, and the whole town rejoiced. Cpl. Harry Stutz, "a tireless optimist," had an idea he passed along to others. He'd visited a local man, 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 occupation, the children of Wiltz needed some holiday joy. "It's the kids I feel sorry for," he 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 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."

In Wiltz there was a lull just a week before St. Nicholas Day. Stutz’s crazy war-time idea of doing something for the kids swelled like a clear blue sky. For old St. Nick, they'd get something from the local priest, dress a couple of little girls up like angels, put the three of them in a jeep, 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’s hair-brained idea blossomed into the biggest celebration the town had since the occupation, when national celebrations ceased under penalty of law.

The 28th Division did something extraordinary: they threw a party not to be believed or forgotten by the jubilant Wiltz kiddies. And it was huge. Even fancy invitations.

Stutz's buddy Cpl. Brookins got talked into playing the central role, outfitted in broad, white robe, a bishop's mitre aboard his noggin—"way too tight,” Brookins said. But there they went, up and down the streets of the village, a pied piper with a mop for a beard, collecting wide-eyed children.

Was not to be believed but was to be loved. Stutz, the Jewish guy, pulled off a Christmas party for a war-torn village at the foot of the Ardennes.

Brookins relished every moment, played the role like a saint, replayed every last gift in his mind and heart. But when it was over he was sadly disappointed--no one had recognized him, no one knew it was Brookins beneath that flowing white robe. All were thrilled, but no one said a thing.

But if you know the story, you can't help thinking the anonymity that December day was proof of the success of the dream a Jewish GI named Stutz had created. To the kids--and even his buddies--for a couple of hours, far from home, Brookins hadn't been a yank at all. He'd become Saint Nick.

There would be more war. In a few days, Hitler threw everything he had at the front where there'd been a lull, even grabbed some of his best troops from the Eastern Front. The Battle of the Bulge followed; 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 St. Nick coming up the streets and giving away candy in an army jeep. It was--and still is--a Christmas to remember.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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