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.
For the rest of this book review: https://www.cjnews.com/culture/books-and-authors/oil-boom-bust-galician-style