Petroleum and Oil Products

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In modern times Jews took part in the development of the oil industry, some in pioneering the extraction of oil and trade in its products in their respective countries, and some in financing the industry abroad.

Eastern Galicia

Oil prospecting and the development of the oilfields of eastern Galicia from the middle of the 19th century was due to a large measure to the initiative of Jews. In *Borislav the first attempts to find petroleum were made by a Jew, Schreiner, before the middle of the 19th century. Ozocerite, which became a substitute for the expensive beeswax in the manufacture of candles, was then discovered there. Ozocerite candles were soon extensively marketed in the region. The great demand for ozocerite led many Jews in *Drogobych to acquire plots of land in Borislav to extract it. Thousands of Jews streamed from surrounding townlets and villages to work there, in primitive conditions. The work was performed in two shifts of 12 hours each; women and children also were employed on the easier tasks. Abraham Schreiner, son of the discoverer of petroleum in Galicia, attempted to separate the petroleum from the earth admixture. After many failures, he succeeded in establishing the first petroleum refinery in Borislav in 1854. Many railway companies then ordered petroleum from him for lighting their carriages and stations. Thus he became the world's first "petroleum king" until the destruction of his refinery in a fire in 1886.

In the 1880s the enterprise, capital, and modern methods of corporations drove out the Jewish entrepreneurs with their inadequate means and primitive methods. As a result, 5,000 Jewish workers in Borislav addressed themselves to the second Zionist Congress in Basle in 1898, described their plight, and requested assistance for aliyah to Ereẓ Israel. Some Jews were still active in the oilfields of Galicia between the two world wars.

Czarist Russia

As the oil wells in czarist Russia were situated outside the *Pale of Settlement Jews were at first unable to participate in the industry. Later on Jewish chemists succeeded in entering the petroleum trade and subsequently also the industry. By 1910, 15% of oil extraction was carried out by Jews, as well as 44% of the manufacture of kerosene, 32% of the manufacture of lubrication oils, and 49.6% of the trade in oil products on the Baku exchange.

During the second half of the 19th century Jews were engaged in the transportation of petroleum. The Jewish petroleum company Dembo & Kagan, whose owners were A. Dembo of Kovno and Kh. Kagan of Brest-Litovsk, laid the first oil pipeline in Russia in 1870. They set up a petroleum refinery in a suburb of Baku and established relations with shipping companies of the Caspian region which transported the oil by sea, whence it was expedited by rail throughout Russia. Because of the monopolistic position of the Nobel Company in the Caucasus, Dembo & Kagan could only operate for five years, after which it was compelled to confine itself to the marketing of oil.

The brothers Saveli and Mikhail Polyak and the engineer Arkadi Beylin, in partnership with the Rothschild Bank, founded the Mazut Company of Baku, later amalgamated with the Shell Company. The Rothschild house also financed the Batum Oil Association, founded after the construction of the Trans-Caucasian railroad and owned mainly by Jews. The *Pereire family of Paris invested considerable sums in the oil fields of the Caucasus. A.M. Feigel, one of the initiators of the petroleum trade in Baku, organized, with A. Beylin, a syndicate of oil companies to compete with the American Standard Oil. The Dembat brothers succeeded in publicizing mazut as a cheap fuel oil for ships and locomotives. They were the first Jews to be permitted by the Russian government, in appreciation of their activities, to acquire oil wells. With Baron Horace Guenzburg, they established the Volga-Caspian Petroleum Company.


In Czechoslovakia Jews were active in oil refining, and in general branches of the trade and industry. The Kralupy refinery on the river Vltava was established by Jindřich Eisenschimel and Ludvik Heller. The refinery owned by David Fanto was prominent in the industry by 1924. The Vacuum Oil Company was headed by Charles Wachtel and Bedřich Stránsky, who transferred their affairs to New York in 1939.


Marcus *Samuel, Viscount Bearstead, played a central role, sometimes in cooperation with the house of Rothschild, in developing the trade and transportation of petroleum and oil on a large international scale from 1897. In 1907 he founded the Shell Royal Dutch Company together with Royal Dutch, which launched England as an oil power. He was one of the first to initiate the haulage of petroleum through the Suez Canal. During World War i, he played a role of prime importance in the supply of oil to the British Navy. Sir Robert Waley *Cohen was active in the Shell Company from 1901, and in 1905 was appointed director of the Asiatic Petroleum Company. From 1907 he served as director of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company. During World War i he served as adviser on oil affairs to the Army Council.


In addition to the investments of the house of Rothschild of Paris and the Pereire family, Alexandre Deutsch founded the Société de Pétrole, and his sons Emile (1847–1924) and Henri (1846–1918) *Deutsch de la Meurthe succeeded him. Henri published a work on petroleum and its use and headed the petroleum industry exhibit at the Paris International Exhibition in 1889.

United States

The role of Jews in the petroleum industry in the U.S. was negligible. The petroleum industry in the U.S. was in the hands of a small number of Protestant families which did not as a rule hire Jews. The Arab boycott after 1948 strengthened this tendency not to employ Jews so as to avoid friction with the Arab oil states. Exceptions were the *Blaustein family, founder of the American Oil Company and Armand *Hammer with his Occidental Petroleum Corporation.

For petroleum and oil products in Israel, see *Israel, State of: Economic Affairs.


N. Shapira, in: Gesher, 5 (1959), 122–9; H. Landau, in: yivo Bleter, 14 (1939), 269–85; I.M. Dijur, in: J.G. Frumkin et al. (eds.), Russian Jewry; 1860–1917 (1966), 140ff.; J.C. Pick, in: Jews of Czechoslovakia, 1 (1968), 375; R. Mahler, Yehudei Polin Bein Shetei Milḥamot ha–Olam (1968), 107.

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