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Journal: In 1944 a young GI acted as St. Nick to bring a little joy to war-weary children in Wiltz. That story was turned into a book and now a documentary.
The best Christmas tales include compassion, kindness and a hint of magic. So it can’t get much better than the--true--story of the “American St. Nick”. In December 1944 the north of Luxembourg was coming out of nearly five years of Nazi occupation. American soldiers there did not dwell on the fact that they would not be going home to their families for Christmas. Instead, they organised a traditional St. Nick parade for the children of Wiltz, who hadn’t seen “Kleeschen” since the outbreak of the war.
Richard Brookins, a 22 year old corporal, was chosen to play Santa. He borrowed a robe from the town’s priest, wore a beard made from rope and rode his jeep through the town giving out treats the GIs had donated from their rations. Little did he know that he would become a legend.
The visit of the American St. Nick has been reenacted each 6 December in Wiltz since then. Brookins himself has been back several times to play his own role, the last time in 2014, at the age of 92. This year, if his health permits it, Brookins will once more make the trip back to Luxembourg. A film about him produced by Tim Gray, chairman of the World War II Foundation, and completely based on Peter Lion’s book “The American St. Nick”, will be shown in Wiltz on 28 and 29 November at the Prabbeli theatre.
“Humanity in a time of world war”
“I decided to make the documentary as soon as I read the book,” says Gray. “I knew it would make an incredible film because it was about compassion and humanity in a time of world war and not about killing or strategy, as is often the case with war films.”
Gray travelled to Luxembourg several times while working on the project. “It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, with so much history and people who are always incredibly helpful and friendly. There is an evident deep love between veterans and the citizens of Luxembourg.”
To date he has produced 15 films about veterans of the second world war, but raising money for each project is difficult. “I wish more individuals and corporations understood that we are running out of time to record these stories. In 10 years, most veterans and survivors will be gone. We need to preserve their stories for future generations. They should be made aware of what the WWII generation went through and accomplished so the lessons of history are understood and errors not repeated.”
In history books Wiltz is referred to as the martyr town. It is where the general strike--a proud moment for the Grand Duchy--broke out in 1942 as a reaction to the forced enrolment of more than 10,000 young Luxembourgers into the German Wehrmacht.
Later, the town was close to being destroyed when it was the battleground for confrontations between Allied and German forces, which resulted in many of its residents being killed. That was two weeks after the American St. Nick had brought Christmas back to the town’s children.