St. Nicholas Day was approaching in 1944 when Harry Stutz and Richard Brookins, corporals in the U.S. Army’s 28th Infantry Division, arrived in newly liberated Luxembourg.
The two soldiers had survived a harrowing battle in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest, where their unit suffered 60 percent casualties. Now their division had been sent to Wiltz, a small town in northern Luxembourg, to recover.
Brookins, now 96, remembers the relief of “not being under fire all the time, and it was good to have people smiling.”
The town would come to revere Brookins — so much so that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reminded the world about him Wednesday.
“Wiltz was hit hard during the war, mainly in the Battle of the Bulge. It was largely destroyed, with families forced from their homes and young men forcibly conscripted into the invading army,” Juncker said.
The former prime minister of Luxembourg had just wrapped up a meeting with President Trump on trade and spoke briefly at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“A young corporal from the U.S. Army’s 28th Infantry division called Richard Brookins decided to bring cheer to the children of the town by dressing up as St. Nicholas,” Juncker said.
How did Brookins become famous in Luxembourg?
When the Nazis invaded the small country in 1940, street names were changed to German, and people were forced to take German-sounding surnames. The celebration of St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, the equivalent of Christmas in Luxembourg, was forbidden.
After the country was liberated in fall 1944, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day could finally resume. But Stutz learned that parents had nothing to give their children as gifts. He decided to organize a celebration.
He and a few other soldiers handed out invitations and collected treats for the children from the soldier’s care packages. They just needed someone to play Saint Nicholas. Stutz asked his friend Richard Brookins, who initially refused out of concern that he would mess it up.
“I didn’t know who Saint Nicholas was, so I didn’t know what he did, and I didn’t want to spoil it for the kids,” Brookins told The Washington Post.
After some cajoling by Stutz, Brookins relented, but he balked again when he realized that he had to wear a costume: the local priest’s robes, a beard made of rope, a staff and a bishop’s miter.
On Dec. 5, Brookins was driven through Wiltz in an Army jeep flanked by two local girls dressed as angels. They visited the town’s schools where children sang and G.I.s passed out sweets.
The bishop’s miter, which was a bit small for Brookins, gave him a bad headache. Stutz suggested taking the miter off, but Brookins refused.
“I didn’t want to spoil the effect for the kids and have them see Saint Nicholas without his hat on,” Brookins said.
The kids were thrilled.
“We didn’t know what they were saying, and they didn’t know what we were saying, but we got along very well,” Brookins said. “They didn’t really know, as I found out later, that this was an American soldier. The little ones just ate that up like our kids do with Santa Claus.”
Eleven days after the celebration, the German army counterattacked and forced Americans out of northern Luxembourg in the Battle of the Bulge. After intense allied bombing that destroyed much of the town, Wiltz was liberated a second time.
After the war ended, Brookins returned to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., began working for the telephone company and started a family. In 1977, he received a letter from the town of Wiltz inviting him to return for the 30th anniversary of the town’s rebuilding.
The letter also mentioned that the people of Wiltz had been reenacting the 1944 celebration every year. They even retraced the route Brookins took in the Army Jeep.
“They had been re-creating this event and re-creating what these soldiers did for 30 years, and none of the soldiers knew about it,” Peter Lion, author of “American St. Nick,” told The Post.
With his family and Stutz, Brookins returned to Wiltz in 1977 to play Saint Nicholas, but for a larger crowd this time.
“Thousands of people lined up on the streets because they wanted to see this guy. All of Luxembourg knew this legend,” Lion said.
By then, Brookins had traveled to Wiltz for St. Nicholas Day several more times. Each time he was greeted like a hero by the people of Wiltz.
“They vowed they would never forget the kindness and generosity of that handful of American soldiers that one St. Nicholas Day,” Lion said, “and to this day they never have.”
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