The question about who knew what, and when, about the Shoah is one of those questions without any one answer. Just like the question of why people in some countries, or areas within certain countries, were more or less likely than others to protest and engage in rescue operations, it all depends upon so many factors.
There’s no question that people living near ghettoes and camps had at least some inkling of what was going on. They saw those walls and barbed wire fences, saw people being marched to and fro on work details. Near camps with Kremchies, it was impossible to miss that horrific smell. They might not’ve known exactly what was happening, but they had some idea.
By the end of the war, many people in Poland and Germany, and some regions of Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, had seen death marches in action. They also knew something was going on.
In occupied Western and Northern Europe, where there were only some transit camps (like Drancy and Westerbork), people wouldn’t have been directly exposed to the things going on in Central and Eastern Europe. However, they did know people were being taken away and persecuted. The brave people of Amsterdam staked a strike in February 1941 (as commemorated in the above plaque), in protest of what was happening to Dutch Jewry.
The people of Denmark also had some sense of what was going on, as word from other countries trickled in. They knew enough to smuggle almost all of their country’s Jewish community into Sweden (among them famous scientist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish). It’s just an urban legend that King Christian X wore a yellow star, but the vast majority of Danes still stood up to fascism and did the right thing. They were like the Italians, unwilling to obey Nazi orders.
Many people saw the death trains, and caught glimpses of the people trapped inside. There were also some escapes from the trains (some successful, some not), and the civilian population would’ve seen that too. It still rankles when I think about those know-it-all agents who dogpiled me in a pitchfest some years back. Among other things, they claimed no one ever escaped from a death train, though there were actually a number of successful escapes. Guess I know my history a lot better than they do!
The most popular melody of “Ani Ma’amin” was created by a Modzitzer Chasid on his way to Treblinka. He promised to give half of his share of the World to Come to whomever could bring the melody to the Modzitzer Rebbe, who’d escaped in 1940. Two men jumped out of the train, and the one survivor indeed brought that melody to the rebbe’s son in Israel, who in turn sent it to his father.
A lot of Polish historical revisionists like to claim Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour documentary Shoah is full of Polonophobic lies for interviewing a lot of peasants with less than enlightened interfaith attitudes, and because some of his Jewish interviewees reported Poles shouting anti-Semitic epithets and pretending to slit their throats. Polish historical revisionists might not be as vile as Shoah deniers, but they’re still freaking ridiculous. How do you just ignore obvious evidence from multiple sources? History, like science, only cares about truth, not preserving and validating your delicate feelings.
If you truly love your country and people, you shouldn’t be afraid to admit and address black marks in its history. I’m a passionate Russophile and Slavophile, but that doesn’t mean pretending there’s no long history of anti-Semitism (often bloody) in countries like Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Slovakia. I’m a quarter Slovak myself, and have no choice but to deal with my discomfort at Slovakia’s ugly role in WWII.
Part of the French section of Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities, one of the many sections I wasn’t able to see due to not being on my own schedule, Copyright Utilisateur:Djampa – User:Djampa. I’d never complain about any of my so far three trips to Israel, but it’s such torture to be yanked along on someone else’s schedule when you want to go through an entire museum, not just parts, and spend the entire day there.
It’s fair to say ordinary people in all countries, even active collaborators, typically didn’t know what was really going on. But it’s also fair to say many people near the camps, ghettoes, and death marches certainly had some idea of what was going on, particularly during the closing months of the war.