Oil boom and bust, Galician style

The Jewish Oil Magnates of Galicia A History, 1853-1945 by Valerie Schatzker  and a Novel by Julien Hirszhaut McGill-Queen’s UP

Peak Oil. Neil Young’s condemnation of the environmental damage caused by the Alberta “Tar Sands.” The Leap Manifesto on climate and energy policy.  All this seems notably of our moment.  But the challenges raised – the impact of petroleum discoveries on the economy, daily life and the environment – have an important mid-19th century Polish precedent.   

It was in south-eastern Poland, not far from the Hungarian and Russian borders, that important discoveries associated with wax, petroleum, and distillation methods turned a semi-feudal, mostly rural landscape into one of the first oil economies of the modern era.  By their great numbers and their peculiar status in 19th-century Polish society, Jews played a substantial role at all levels of this economic transformation.

The Jewish Oil Magnates of Galicia – a hybrid volume that includes a historical study by Valerie Schatzker and a translation of the 1954 Yiddish novel The Jewish Oil Magnates by Julien Hirszhaut – tells this story with verve and impressive detail.

Schatzker’s historical portrait, covering roughly a century, acts as an introduction to Hirszhaut’s novel. Both documents serve as careful studies of the impact and risks of modern resource economies, while presenting a clear-eyed portrait of eastern European Jewish life before World War II.

The Galician breakthroughs in resource development were sudden and far-reaching.  The landscape in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains had always oozed what were referred to as “oil seeps.”  These provided materials used in medicine, as lubricant, for the tanning of leather, and the production of soap and candles.    

The first leap beyond this low-tech era followed the development of a market for ozokerite, a wax that proved an excellent and much less expensive alternative to beeswax for candle making. Mined in haphazardly dug and timbered shafts under the ground, wax was distilled by placing encrusted stones in vats of cold water, which were stirred with paddles.  When the ozokerite rose to the surface it was skimmed and boiled in cauldrons over open fires.  The recovered, purified wax provided a far cleaner, non-odorous, pleasantly white material for Sabbath candle-making and for the candles used in Russian Orthodox churches.

In the 1850s, a Galician pharmacist in Lemberg was among the first to successfully distil crude oil into naphtha, a “clear, odourless fuel for lamps.” This technological advance led to the earliest installation of gas lamps on Drohobycz’s streets, as well as to the first instance of a European railway using gas to illuminate its rail cars.  

By 1875, shafts in the area of Boryslaw, one of the key towns in south-eastern Poland, numbered in the thousands.  Photographs of the area in this period are reminiscent of Standard Oil’s Pennsylvania oil fields.  Wooden derricks with their box-like caps, rough workers’ shacks, haphazard fencing and roadways stretch as far as the eye can see.  

A large Jewish underclass populated the wax-mining economy; independent Jewish owners sunk mines; while a number of “magnates” – naft-magnatn in Yiddish – lorded over newly made fortunes.  They built mansions in nearby Drohobycz to escape the environmental disaster that befell Boryslav in the immediate area of derricks and mining.  

As Schatzker tells it, mine fields became a kind of “Galician Hell”: “Water run-off from the mines was left to wash away the soil, flood the low-lying areas, turn roads and fields to mud, and cause houses in the towns to sink below the street level.  Boardwalks had to be built to pass over ditches filled with stinking, rotting refuse, so that pedestrians could navigate the streets.”

In the following decades came an all-out oil boom, which reached its height in the years before World War I. From each shift in the petroleum industry came new forms of labour; new depths of environmental damage; new attractions for local and international investors; new unpredictability associated with the boom and its inevitable bust.

Hirszhaut’s novelistic treatment of these developments is well matched to Schatzker’s meticulous historical introduction. Following the model of epic Yiddish novels of the early 20th century, Hirszhaut depicts the full transformation of the Galician economy and its major towns in the second half of the 19th century. His characters represent all rungs of the social ladder, from the bottom – the lepaks who, digging in ditches, would “scoop out the thicker layer of oil with pails and then sponge the shallow layers with bunches of grasses or reeds” – to the magnates at the top.  In scenes set in their Drohobycz mansions, magidim and paupers mix with social workers, mayors’ deputies, and Polish landowning gentry.

Hirszhaut’s ability to present his narrative convincingly comes in part from his own youth in Drohobycz and his later studies in law and politics in nearby Lvov (called Lemberg in his novel). Before the war he wrote for a variety of Yiddish and Polish language publications. He spent the early war years in hiding in Warsaw until he was captured and found himself in the Germans’ notorious Pawiak prison. After the war he helped rebuild the postwar Yiddish press as well as social services in Lodz, Bialystok, Katowice, Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw.  Hirszhaut was among the first to collect survivors’ testimonies in postwar Poland. In the 1950s he settled in New York where he remained a key Yiddish journalist and editor.  He died in1983.

The original Yiddish novel, Yidishe Naft-Magnatn, appeared in the same Buenos Aires-based series devoted to postwar Yiddish writing that included an early version of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Though Hirszhaut’s book is not related to Holocaust writing, its publication in 1954 was part of the series’ goal of recovering writings and documents associated with Polish Jewish culture and society. Reading the novel today is akin to sitting in a time machine.  Galician forests, the Boryslaw Klondike, Drohobycz millionaires, the distant Vienna court of the Hapsburg emperor, the great chassidic courts and the rising enlightenment ideals of the maskilim inhabit Hirszhaut’s novel, distinct and ghostly at the same time