The near-annihilation of Europe's Jews in the Second World War destroyed not only much of their history, but also knowledge of the contributions they made to the regions in which they lived. In The Jewish Oil Magnates of Galicia, Valerie Schatzker rescues the almost-forgotten story of the Jews who became the "wildcatters" and oil barons in one of the world's first petroleum industries. Combining a history of Galicia's petroleum industry with an annotated English translation of Julien Hirszhaut's Yiddish novel Di yiddishe naftmagnatn (The Jewish Oil Magnates), Schatzker traces the near-century-long boom and bust cycle that took place in the Austro-Hungarian province - from the perilous, back-breaking work of digging for oil by hand, to the introduction of the Canadian drill that increased production. Galician Jews worked in the industry from its beginning to its final days under German occupation. They were pioneers in exploration, refining, and marketing, and in the first part of the twentieth century were prominent among its technical, scientific, and managerial leaders. After the First World War, as borders shifted and minorities clashed, oil resources declined. During the Second World War, Nazi occupiers, using Jewish slave labourers, squeezed out the last barrels for their war effort. Schatzker’s study and Hirszhaut’s novel illuminate and inform each other: her monograph provides the historical context for the novel and his novel provides colour and detail, personalizing the history. Together, they offer a valuable glimpse into Jewish life in a vanished era.
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Valerie Schatzker is a writer living in Toronto. Julien Hirszhaut (1908-1983) was a Polish and Yiddish writer, journalist, and editor in Poland before the war. After surviving the Holocaust, he left Poland for Paris and later New York, where he wrote artReview:
As many of the records have been destroyed, it is a considerable achievement even to describe this history. Both the monograph and the novel afford many valuable glimpses into the Jewish life of a vanished era.” John-Paul Himka, University of Alberta
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