When War Took A Break -- St. Nicholas's Appearance Seemed Like A Miracle To The Children Of Wiltz In 1944

War doesn't usually pause for the holidays.

But 50 years ago, some battle-weary American GIs took advantage of a fleeting lull in the war for Europe to give Christmas to some equally weary children of conflict.

It was a gift the people of Wiltz, Luxembourg, remember to this day.

When they tell the story of Christmas,1944 at their annual St. Nicholas Festival, the people begin with the unfamiliar quiet that settled on their tiny nation that fall in the midst of World War II.

The American troops to the east of Germany's Siegfried Line of defense were relaxed, taking advantage of the let-up after pushing the Nazis back to their own soil. The German troops on the west side of the line also were taking advantage of the intermission, preparing for the surprise shove back that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Cpl. Harry Stutz, a cryptographer with the 28th Infantry Division, was stationed in Wiltz, a town of perhaps 5,000. He was 26 and had arrived in Europe the previous June - 10 days after the allied armies of America, Britain and Canada had landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the D-Day invasion.

Stutz, who now lives in Seattle, had fought with the GIs through France. In August he'd paraded through Paris with the victorious Allies. Then for two days he'd gone AWOL - absent without leave - to see the sights. When he rejoined his unit, he was sent to the Hurtgen Forest, near Aachen, Germany, where some of the war's most ferocious fighting took place. Then the troops were sent south some 50 miles to Wiltz.

As Christmas approached, the thick forests around Wiltz muffled the rumblings of the German build-up across the border. Civilians and German prisoners told of troop movements. But Allied intelligence said the Nazis were more likely to attack farther north, not through Luxembourg where they'd stormed through in 1940 to start the war.

Bleak Christmas for children

Stutz became friendly with many villagers during his stay in Wiltz, including a bricklayer who had fought in the underground against the German occupation forces. Martin Schneider raised pigs and made a little moonshine. The pair agreed to a trade - scraps from the Army's mess for Schneider's pigs, homemade schnapps for Stutz and his buddies.

Schneider told Stutz about his 10-year-old niece, Martha, who lived with his family because her mother was sick and couldn't care for her. The holidays would be bleak this year for all the children of Wiltz, he said.

The people of Luxembourg have two traditional celebrations. Early in December, St. Nicholas, dressed in bishops' robes and mitered hat, comes to the children with gifts and candy. Christmas is a more religious celebration in that Catholic country.

St. Nicholas wouldn't be coming this year, Schneider told his friend. "We have no chocolates for the children, nothing."

The GIs would be only a little better off.

"This was our second or third Christmas away from home," Stutz said in a recent interview. "You can imagine how unhappy the troops were to be away from family."

Stutz doesn't know where he got the idea. But he began to pass the word to the soldiers billeted around town: Let's put on a St. Nicholas Festival for the children of Wiltz this year.

"It was something that touched a nerve in the GIs," Stutz said. "It wasn't their nieces, their children, but it touched them so. At the same time it touched the townspeople."

GIs donated candy and gum from their rations for the children, along with whatever holiday goodies the mail brought them. Army cooks gave flour, sugar and shortening to be turned into cookies by the nuns at the town school. For the soldiers, Stutz threw in a huge salami his mother had sent.

The children planned a program of songs and dancing. Mothers turned scraps of material into elaborate costumes, transforming solemn little boys into elves and fearful little girls into angels. Someone came up with robes to turn a tall, battle-hardened GI into St. Nicholas for a day. Headquarters in Paris send a camera crew to record it all.

A bit of that footage showed up in a recent television documentary on the Battle of the Bulge. Stutz has a full-length version.

It shows some 50 to 75 laughing children and their parents, all dressed in costumes or Sunday best. There's St. Nicholas arriving by Jeep, flanked by two little angels with proud smiles. Martha is there in the crowd, and Stutz is shown helping St. Nicholas hand out candy for the children to stuff into paper bags. During the pageant, he's sitting on the front row, a solemn blond toddler on his lap.

War returns

Eleven days later, the war returned with a vengeance.

The Germans poured 24 divisions across the border, where six American divisions were caught by surprise. The Americans were driven out of Wiltz and destroyed the town fighting to gain it back.

Many of the children of Wiltz were killed that winter. Martha was hit by shrapnel which gouged a huge wound in her thigh. It bothers her to this day. Stutz, now retired and living in Seattle, often wondered what happened to the little blond girl who sat on his lap.

Stutz has maintained his friendships in Wiltz and has visited half a dozen times over the years. A few years ago, Maisy Franck, the little girl who sat on Stutz's lap, contacted him through a veteran's organization. They met again last September when Stutz visited.

The people of Wiltz celebrate the St. Nicholas Festival every December and recount how it nearly became a war casualty. It may or may not strike them as odd that the man who gave them back their Christmastime holiday is Jewish.

Harry Stutz doesn't consider it the least bit odd.

"It was a human thing to do," he says, searching for words to explain something he's never really thought about. "It was for the children, to make the children happy. They weren't going to have a festival, no chocolate, no cookies, no joy."

But there's more, Stutz says on reflection.

"This war was a devastating experience for these people. It wasn't just a Jewish tragedy, you know. It was a tragedy for all humankind."