From Cleopatra and Antony to Romeo and Juliet to Victoria and Albert, there have been many historical couples famous for their deep love for each other. But there’s one couple whose story of danger, courage, and determination in war-torn 1940s Europe few people know: Rosa Rauchbach and Horace Greasley.
Born in 1918 in Leicestershire, England, Horace “Jim” Greasley and his twin brother were conscripted into the British army in the first draft of World War II, and Horace was captured by the German Wehrmacht in 1940 during the British retreat to Dunkirk. He had been in the army for only seven weeks. He was marched east for ten weeks before being put on a three-day train ride to Poland. He was held in marble quarry labor camp in Silesia (then part of Germany, now part of Poland), where he met Rosa Rauchbach, the 17-year-old daughter of the quarry director, who worked at the quarry as a translator. They soon fell in love, and when Horace was transferred to Freiwaldau, a factory labor camp attached to Auschwitz, she followed him, although her new capacity as translator for several camps in the vicinity did not allow her access to the prisoners. Horace had one solution to their separation: break out to see her.
And he did it over 200 times.
That’s right. Over the next two and a half years, Horace claims he escaped from the labor camp more than 200 times to meet with Rosa in secret and acquire food for his starving comrades. Each time, he removed the bars from his cell window and crept under a chain fence to meet Rosa in a nearby chapel, then went to gather food and return to the camp the same way he had come, partly because he felt a duty to help the other captured soldiers and partly because he was so deep in Nazi territory that there was nowhere to run.
During his time in captivity, Horace had a unique run-in with a high-ranking German officer who had come to inspect the camp. To the surprise of the German guards and Allied prisoners alike, Horace approached the fence and removed his shirt to show the officer his ribs, demanding more food for the prisoners. Horace did not realize that this superior officer was in fact SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, and that he was the subject of this now-famous photograph (although some people maintain that the photo was taken in Belgium and the soldier shown is Russian).
Horace and his fellows POWs were liberated on May 24th, 1945, after five years and one day in captivity. For several months, he continued to correspond with Rosa (now 22 years old) from Britain and helped her to get a job as a translator for the Americans. After several months, the letters stopped, and he eventually learned that Rosa had died in childbirth, along with the baby he never knew she was carrying. Although the child was in all likelihood his, Horace was never able to know for sure.
Horace eventually remarried in 1975, and he and his wife Brenda had two children before retiring to Costa Blanca, Spain in 1988, where Horace passed away in 2010 at the age of 91. His 2008 autobiography Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell? (ghostwritten by Ken Scott) is being made into a film, with Alex Pettyfer and Robert Pattinson as possible choices to play Horace.
Rosa and Horace’s love was passionate and dangerous. If caught, Horace could have faced the firing squad, and Rosa could have faced unimaginably harsh punishment, perhaps being put in a labor camp herself. But they defied all odds to be together, and although it ended in tragedy, their love story is one for the ages.