(JB) A heartwarming story of friendship between US soldiers and a Luxembourg town has been immortalised in a film and book, released 71 years later.
“The American Saint Nick”, a true story, recounts the incredible story of a group of war-weary GI soldiers who, on December 5, 1944, downed weapons to bring some festive cheer to the children of war-torn Wiltz by organising a visit from St Nicolas.
The moving documentary was produced by Tim Gray of the WWII Foundation, using new interviews as well as archive footage. At its centre is Richard Brookins, the GI who posed as St Nicolas.
this is one of my favourite (films) because of the character of the man involved (Richard “Dick” Brookins)
“I have produced 15 films to date on the personal stories of WWII veterans and survivors and this is one of my favourites because of the character of the man involved (Richard “Dick” Brookins),” Gray said, adding: “He is humble and loves the people of Wiltz deeply. I have become close to Dick and his beautiful family over the years, and so has my wife. They represent everything that is good about America and the soldiers who served in WWII and liberated towns and villages and cities in the countries from France to Luxembourg.”
The birth of an idea
The idea to bring St Nick to Wiltz was proposed by Corporal Harry Stutz, who was among the last soldiers to stay behind following the town’s liberation and defend it from retreating Nazi troops.
Then a 22-year-old soldier, Richard Brookins was the only person to volunteer as St Nicolas. Nuns provided him with a white gown, while soldiers pooled together their candy and chocolate rations to be shared out among the children.
Wearing a long white beard, Brookins was driven around in a Jeep to hand out sweets. Little did he know the immense impact this gesture would have on the townspeople of Wiltz, who remember and honour it annually.
“It wasn’t just about passing out candy to the children, though that was the reason behind it
Peter Lion, who wrote the book “The American St Nick”, a true story, said: “It wasn’t just about passing out candy to the children, though that was the reason behind it.
“When you think about what it meant after five years of Nazi rule, oppression and occupation… There’s certainly so much emotion still in the story and the people recounting it. You can’t help be moved.”
The story has achieved almost legendary status in Wiltz since Brookins’ first return trip in 1977.
He has since returned several times for the St Nicolas parade, the last time being in 2014 for its 70th anniversary. This trip is featured in Gray’s documentary, along with footage from the 1977 visit.
Book and film launched together
The film, which runs at 58 minutes, is complemented by Lion’s book, a rewrite of an original book published in 2003. Lion first learned of the American St Nick story through Harry Stultz’s son around 20 years ago.
After the first edition was published, Lion said people were “falling out of the window” to send him new information, photos and anecdotes.
“I took down the information and said if I ever rewrote it, I would put it into the next book,” said Lion, adding that some of the information sounded so incredible he added “a true story” in the title, to remind people this was not a “Hollywood-ised” version.
“The only reason there is footage of the St Nick cortège is because of two combat camera men…As they got to Wiltz after filming, they saw a Jeep go by with what looked like Santa Claus hanging out the back…If you think about it, had that Jeep arrived 30 seconds later, they wouldn’t have seen it and there would be no film.”
The book, available in English and Luxembourgish, also contains many previously unpublished photos, with a larger number published in the Luxembourgish version of the book.
The decision to publish the book in Luxembourgish was a nod to the fact that Nazis banned Luxembourgers from using this language.
European premiere in Wiltz
The film and book were launched on November 10 in Rochester, New York, where Brookins, now 93, lives.
They will receive their European launch in Wiltz from November 27-29, an occasion which Wiltz is eagerly awaiting, even if this year Brookins will not be able to attend because of ill health.
Their presence is what makes this traditional festival so unique
“The coming of St Nicolas was for me a very good childhood memory,” said Maggy Reisen from the organisation behind the annual celebration.
“(The St Nicolas parade) allows us to share these memories of an unforgettable day with our children. I always look forward to the return of the American St Nick to Wiltz and find it a very moving, to see the joy and passion these people bring to our town. Their presence is what makes this traditional festival so unique.”
See the St Nicolas festivities in Wiltz
November 27: Book launch and photo exhibition, 5pm, Château de Wiltz
November 29: American St Nick, documentary public screening at Ciné Prabbeli at 7pm
November 29: St Nicolas market opens at 1pm, with the St Nicolas cortège starting at 2.30pm and arriving at the château at 3pm, followed by music and other festivities.