Petroleum in Galicia

Oil Derricks mirrored in the Tyśmienica River


From the middle of the nineteenth century, the history of the Jews of the Drohobycz Administrative District was closely connected with the history of the petroleum industry. As the demand for gas lighting grew, the oil-rich area around Drohobycz, Borysław, Tustanowice, Schodnica and other towns in the Drohobycz Administrative District became known as "Galician California". The discovery of black gold attracted hundreds of speculators and people seeking their fortunes. The Jews of the area were directly involved in this business from its early beginnings. Hundreds found employment as labourers and later as skilled workers in the industry. Some made and lost fortunes; most laboured under appalling conditions.

Lepaks or workers in the early oil industry



However, long before the oil derricks cluttered the landscape and the smell of oil permeated the air, the peasants in the Drohobycz district had collected crude oil in wooden buckets to sell it in the market in Drohobycz. They used the thick oil called ropa as a lubricant for wagon wheels and as a healing agent for skin diseases. Before the nineteenth century, there had even been trade in crude oil with Russia for use in the tanning of leather. The peasants were also aware of its potential for illumination and mixed balls of straw with crude oil to serve as torches.


The seep oil was a dark, viscous liquid that was sticky and burned with a foul odour, giving off smoke. It is known that some local inhabitants, whose names are lost to history, tried to "cook" crude oil to make a fuel that burned more efficiently and with less smoke and smell. One, known only by the name of Bajtał, peddled the crude distillate he made in a rudimentary still.

A related geological resource in the area was ozokerite or earth wax, a natural byproduct of the crude oil cracking process found in relatively few places on earth. Since earth wax was cheaper than beeswax, large and small candle factories began to be established in Borysław and Drohobycz, delivering their products as far as Vienna and Prague.

Inside an ozokerite mine

Rocks and soil extracted from the primitive ozokerite mines were deposited in form of large hills, known in Polish as wysypy, and since those days, the manmade hills remain a characteristic of the town’s landscape.

With the industrial revolution and the need for safe and efficient illumination in large public places and factories, experimentation with the potential of petroleum for lighting began to preoccupy scientists and entrepreneurs. Some of the earliest experimentation with petroleum's potential for illumination took place in Galicia. Around 1810, a Czech named Joseph Hecker, a salt mine inspector from Prague working near the town of Truskawiec near Borysław and Drohobycz, discovered that when making asphalt out of crude oil, the oily, liquid residue burned easily. He used it in lamps to illuminate buildings in the towns of the Drohobycz district and with a colleague, Johann Mitis, established a business to distill petroleum. In 1817, they signed a contract with the Town Council of Prague for a sizeable order to light the city's streets. However, because the poor state of the roads in Galicia made reliable delivery impossible and because they found it difficult to find investors, the business failed. Hecker disappeared from history, taking with him his secret of distillation.

Abraham Schreiner, 1812-1898

No one seems to have continued Hecker's experiments until the middle of the century, when Abraham Schreiner (1812-1898), a Jew in Borysław who had experience with making candles from ozokerite, tried to distill crude oil, probably in a still used for alcohol. It is said that he sustained severe burns when the still exploded. Schreiner brought his turbid, smelly, greenish distillate to two pharmacists in the Mikołasz pharmacy in Lemberg (Lwów), Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1822-1882) and Johann Zeh.

Ignacy Lukasiewicz, 1822-1882

In 1853, with their training and superior equipment, Łukasiewicz and Zeh managed to purify Schreiner's distillate into a pure oil they called naphtha. With the help of a local tinsmith, Łukasiewicz developed the first naphtha lamp. By 1855 the hospital in Lemberg was lit with oil lamps and by 1858, the north train station of Vienna was lit with oil from Drohobycz.

The discovery of naphtha spurred the search for petroleum. Although drilling for petroleum probably took place first in Azerbaijan in 1846, the first European attempt was in Bóbrka in western Galicia in 1854, even before drilling occurred in North America in 1858 in the province of Ontario in Canada or in Pennsylvania in 1859. Digging for oil began in western Galicia but it was in eastern Galicia, in the Borysław area that the largest fields were discovered. By the First World War, the Galician oil industry supplied five percent of the world’s petroleum.

"The mines of Borysław stretch over 150 morgs in the area of Borysław and Wolanka. They are in a broad valley closed off by forested hills, quite flat but broken here and there by small, rolling hills. This whole valley is excavated in its length and breadth, has thousands of holes, and is filled with piles of stones and mud among which rise small wooden sheds which cover the wells and the numerous distilleries which are lining the road to the neighboring Drohobycz. The atmosphere is filled with coal gases. In the year 1873 this mining area contained 12,000 oil derricks which exploited the oil and ozokerite.4


In the early years, mining crude oil and ozokerite was accomplished by primitive methods at first. Dr. N.M. Gelber the back-breaking work of the labourers.

Wax worker descending into a mine

“They dug pits forty to seventy meters deep without safety devices and brought out the wax by lowering men in large buckets into the pits to dig and bring up whatever they found. Everything was done in a primitive manner, without machinery or tools. The excavated rocks were then dispersed on the ground and poor people would extract wax from them. These [workers, who extracted wax from the stones] were called lepaks.”4

An excerpt from a Geographic Dictionary describes the extraction of oil and natural wax around 1870.

“The oil from the rocks is extracted here as well as in other areas by the making of wells in areas which obviously allow the oil from the deep deposits to well up. These wells that measure between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, either fenced off or reinforced are dug until oil is struck and gathers at the bottom of these wells. The oil is raised to the surface by means of buckets and winches that are erected above the wells. The productive wells are protected from the elements by means of wooden barracks that allow the workers to extract the oil also during the winter months. After a variable period of time, since some wells produce only for a few days and some weeks, the wells have to be dug deeper and some are abandoned when further digging does not produce more oil. Some wells that are not adequately braced collapse and some fill with water and the owners are forced to seek other places to dig. Thus the whole valley of Borysław is studded with productive wells as well as abandoned, half filled wells and depressions filled with water. The number of these abandoned wells is steadily growing. The same method is used to get the wax out of the ground. The mines of Borysław produce currently more wax than oil. The softness of the wax as well as its abundance causes it to ooze out of crevices and fall into the wells.6

Ozokerite miners

“Many of these early wells were laboriously dug by hand. Others were drilled with spring poles, in which a springy wooden pole was stuck in the ground at an angle and a heavy metal drill bit attached by a cable to the head of the pole. Operators would bounce up and down on stirrups attached to the pole, causing the bit to chop a hole into the hard ground. The hole was cleaned by lowering a specially designed bucket called a bailer into it that was similarly bounced up and down until it filled dirt and cuttings to be hauled to the surface.” 7


An oil well burning

“The digging as well as the deepening of the wells is not without danger. From the ground soaked with oil rise toxic, deadly gases. This has led to the introduction of ventilators or the air- mills” to clean the air. The miners work in pairs. The one who is digging always fastens himself to a strong line which is tied to a post driven into the ground next to the well. The other watches him above in order to pull the digger to safety should he lose consciousness.” 8

Fire was also an every-present danger. Until the 1880's, regulation of the mining industry was very lax. Wells were dug too closely to one another and safety measures were unknown. Even later, when the government had introduced regulations, fires were frequent and often disastrous.

Steam was first used in Poland in 1867 to drill a well at Kleczany, in Western Galicia and enabled operators to drill much more deeply, to about 200 meters. Mechanization increased oil fever. In 1873 there were about 900 enterprises and about 12,000 workers.

It was however, the so-called Canadian rig that effected the greatest progress in the Galician oil industry. A Canadian entrepreneur W.H. MacGarvey helped develop the rig in the 1860's or '70's which made Canadian drilling technology and Canadian drillers famous around the world. MacGarvey came to Galicia in 1883 and a year later was able to bore holes of 700 to 100 metres. By 1904 there were thirty boreholes in Borysław of over 1,000 meters. MacGarvey established a company called MacGarvey and Bergheim and made a fortune from his Galician properties.

Train leaving refineries

By the end of the nineteenth century, the enormous economic potential of the oil industry had become apparent throughout the world. Wealthy interests and large British, Belgian and German companies moved into Galicia to invest in the industry. By 1884 the number of enterprises had shrunk from 900 to 484; by 1890 it had decreased to 285 manned by 3,700 workers. However, the number of oil refineries increased from thirty-one in 1880 to fifty-four in 1904.

The great success and expansion of the industry inspired the establishment of training schools and university courses for oil workers and engineers throughout Galicia. In 1896 a mining school in Borysław was opened.

By 1909 production reached its historical peak, over 2 million tons or 4% of world wide production. The oil fields of Borysław and nearby Tustanowice accounted for over 90% of the national oil output of Austria. At the turn of the century, Galicia was fourth in the rank of oil producers of the world.

With the great profits to be earned from the mechanized industry and the consolidation of the small enterprises, came a social upheaval that devastated the Jewish community. In his memorial book, Dr. N.M. Gelber describes how the purchase of the tiny holdings by the large international firms resulted in discriminatory hiring practices that robbed hundreds of Jewish workers of their livelihood. Although the situation was very urgent, the international Jewish Community refused help. However, through the intervention of Baroness Hirsch some aid arrived and assistance for emigration to Palestine.

Menstanding in front of an oil derrick

After 1910, the slow depletion of the oil fields was apparent; production began to slow down. During the World War II, Imperial Russia invaded eastern Galicia and occupied the oil fields. Many Galicians, especially Jews, fled during this period to spend most of 1914 and 1915 in Vienna or safer zones of the Austrian empire. It was during this period that MacGarvey and his partners lost their business and their fortune. At end of the war, the newly independent country of Poland engaged actively in the exploitation of the oil fields of eastern Galicia.

In 1918, when Poland became an independent country, oil production was only 822,940 tons or only 40% of the peak of production in 1909. The main task of the Polish government in the 1920’s was to conduct a serious and systematic geological survey of the Carpathian region and establish new wells.

In 1939 the German army briefly occupied the area around Drohobycz and the Borysław oil fields but they left in late September, 1939 when the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact was signed in August, 1939. The Russians then confiscated the oilfields from their owners.

A typical view of Borysław

Alex Sharon relates that in Israel in the 70’s he met an old Jewish chap, originally from Riga, Latvia who told him that as a young engineer, he arrived in Borysław in early October, 1939 with the Soviet military and occupation authorities to take possession of the newly acquired "energy resources", such as the oil fields. Some of the local technical specialists were sent to the Soviet Union with the Polish and Jewish “bourgeoisie“, the rich landowners, businessmen, intelligentsia and other potential “enemies of the state”, to work in the Gulag or other industries.

The oil industry was fully operational during the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941. Because Poland had introduced updated refining technology during the inter-war period that was unknown in the Soviet Union, many Russian specialists from the Baku and Grozny oilfields came to Borysław to learn latest technology.

When Germans occupied Borysław in June, 1941, many of the workers in the oil industry managed to escape to USSR. In his book, Leopold Held writes about his life in Kazakhstan during the second World War where numerous specialists in drilling and refining survived during the war.

The Germans maintained drilling and refining operations throughout the war and many Jews were able to survive the Holocaust, as "workers needed for the defense industry of the Third Reich". Dr. Berthold Beitz, a young German engineer and director of the oil industry managed to save the lives of many Jews under this regulation. Dr. Beitz, who became chairman of the Krupp Industry after the Second World War, was honored with the title of “Righteous Among Nations” by the state of Israel.

Gartenberg, Goldhammer, Lauterbach & Company

Following the war, the oil industry in the Borysław area was a priority of the Soviet Union and continued to dominate life in this area. Alex Sharon writes that as a young child he and the other children would practise skiing on the wysypy (man made hills of tailings from the ozokerite mines) until they could ski in the mountains. His friends’ parents worked in the ozokerite mines or drilling for oil in the Mraznica, Schodnica or Tustanowice oil fields. Local trade schools produced the artisans for the oil and gas industry and the local technical college produced technologists for the oil fields and mechanic shops serving the oil and gas industry. Many local Russian and Ukrainian high school graduates went to the Lwów (Lviv) Polytechnic Institute or the Moscow Specialized Petroleum Technical Institute (called the Kerosinka) to return to the town as petroleum engineers. His male cousins, elder brother and he himself also followed this profession.

During his childhood he remembers the Tyśmienica River and other small streams always full of the mazut, the crude oil leaking from the pipelines in the oilfields and the piping systems of the refineries. The rivers were virtually black without traces of fish or any life below the water or on the surface.

Today, the oil fields of Borysław are still exploited. Recently Alex was working in the rich oil fields of the Komi Republic of Usinsk and was pleased to meet Ukrainian crew from the Borysław oil fields. They shared many memories of our town, schools, teachers, familiarity with the skiing hills and the sports’ personalities of the past.

The Oil Companies of the Drohobycz Admiistrative District

For more information about the owners of the petroleum companies in the area.
Oilfields in Galicia See a map showing the location of all the petroleum centres in 1902.


1 This photo has been copied with kind permission of the American Institue of Polish Culture:
2 1 Morg 5.985 sq m. See Himka, John-Paul. Galicia and Bukowina: A Research Handbook, Historic Sites Service, Occasional Paper. No. 20, March 1990, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historical Resources Division, Alberta.
3 Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego I Innych Krajow Slowianskich (Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic Countries) Wydany pod redakcja Bronislawa Chlebowskiego, Warszawa, 1892
4 Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego I Innych Krajow Slowianskich (Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic Countries) Wydany pod redakcja Bronislawa Chlebowskiego, Warszawa, 1892.
5 Gelber , Dr. N. M. Memorial to the Jews of Drohobycz, Borysław, and surroundings.
6 Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego I Innych Krajow Slowianskich (Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic Countries) Wydany pod redakcja Bronislawa Chlebowskiego, Warszawa, 1892..
7 ibid.
9 ibid.


Bartoszewski, . Stefan. “Przemysl Naftowy” from unknown publication c. 1928, translated by Alex Sharon.
Gauss, Karl-Markus and Pollack, Martin. Das reiche Land der armen Leute. J&V Edition: Wien, 1992..
Gelber , Dr. N. M. Memorial to the Jews of Drohobycz, Borysław, and surroundings.
Held, Leopold. The Tys'mienica Still Flows. 1978.
Himka, John-Paul. Galicia and Bukowina: A Research Handbook, Historic Sites Service, Occasional Paper.. No. 20, March 1990, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historical Resources Division, Alberta. Also available on line at:
Pollack, Martin. Nach Galizien, Christian Brandstetter: Vienna, 1984
Magocsi, Paul Robert. Galicia, A Historical Survey and Bibliographic Guide. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1983.
Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego I Innych Krajow Slowianskich (Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and other Slavic Countries) Wydany pod redakcja Bronislawa Chlebowskiego, Warszawa, 1892
Internet References
Galizien, seine kulturelle und wirtschaftliche Entwicklung. [Herausgeber und verantwortlicher Redakteur Siegmund Bergmann.] [Wien Buchdruckerei Industrie] [1912?]

This material was compiled by Valerie Schatzker with contributions from Claudia Erdheim and Alexander Sharon.

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