News2019.11.24 12:00

The humble Litvak beginnings of petrol stations in Lithuania

Accelerating motorisation in interwar Lithuania increased the demand for fuel and gave rise to a new type of business – petrol stations. Appearing throughout Lithuania in the early 1920s, they were often owned by Jews who had already traded petrol in their variety stores.

As Lithuania gears up to mark 2020 as the year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania, LRT English together with Vilnius University and Jewish Heritage Lithuania bring you a series of stories exploring Litvak history.

Mousha Shatenshtein was the first to take up the initiative and build a petrol station in Joniškis, a town in northern Lithuania. As the representative of the London-based Shell company in Lithuania, he concluded an agreement with Joniškis council in 1928 and rented a plot of land in the Market Square for five years.

The contract allowed him to install an underground petroleum reservoir, for which he had to pay an annual rent of 200 litas and a one-off payment of 1,500 litas.

This marked the humble beginnings of Lithuanian petrol stations.

Several other entrepreneurs, including Litvaks Chaim Ziv and Hilel Pinksis, also engaged in petrol trade in Joniškis in the 1930s and all of them had their stations in the single most important economic centre of the town, the Market Square.

Although automobile use grew continuously in the 1920s and 30s, the overall number remained minuscule. In 1940, just over 2,300 automobiles were registered in the whole country.

Prices of petrol were also quite high in Lithuania – one litre of petrol cost almost 1 litas in 1929-1934, while the average monthly salary of an office clerk was only around 150-380 litas, making cars an out-of-reach luxury for many.

Yet, the main consumers of petrol in Lithuania were passenger buses, and by the end of the 1920s, a network of regular intercity bus services had been established.

Petrol sellers, meanwhile, strove to have their stations along their routes, as Joniškis was where the buses from Šiauliai to Žagarė and from Riga to Tauragė would stop.

But in 1936, the Lithuanian government dampened the growth of petrol station industry. In order to support local manufacturers, the government instituted a requirement to add 5 percent locally manufactured ethyl alcohol to imported petrol.

This inflated the prices by around a dozen cents over plain petrol products, and subsequently, gave rise to a Lithuanian petroleum phenomenom – 'Motorin'. From 1937 onward, nothing but this mixture of petrol and alcohol was sold in Lithuania.

Stories of other Litvaks and their Lithuanian histories, below:

Splendour, music and uproar at Vilnius' historic Bristol Hotel

Visionary Litvak family caught between wars, international relations, and the Holocaust

Bunimovich chocolate factory that was once the pride of Vilnius

The story of a real Dr. Dolittle in Jewish Vilna

Vilna Ghetto Theatre, a form of resistance in the presence of horror


The series is prepared by Vilnius University's Faculty of History and the association Jewish Heritage Lithuania. You can find more stories on the mobile app Discover Jewish Lithuania.

Jewish Heritage Lithuania, funded by the EU, aims to promote Jewish heritage in Lithuania, create thematic and regional tourist maps, encourage local and international tourism to Lithuania.

Lithuania plans to enact 70 different projects throughout the year, including performances, exhibitions, building and renovating monuments, and borrow the so-called ‘Pinkas’, or register, of the Vilna Gaon's synagogue from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

LRT has been certified according to the Journalism Trust Initiative Programme