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Margolin, Eliezer (Lazar) (1875–1944)

by Suzanne Welborn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Eliezer (Lazar) Margolin (1875-1944), soldier and businessman, was born on 26 March 1875 at Belgorod, Russia, son of Murdochy Joseph Margolin, merchant, and his wife Llata Freida, née Carlin. When Eliezer (known as Lazar) was 17 his family migrated to Palestine. At night Lazar and others from his village, Rehovot, patrolled their orchards on horseback to fight marauders from neighbouring Arab villages. After his parents died within a week of each other, Lazar, as sole breadwinner, worked the family vineyard and almond orchard and other orchards as well, to supplement a meagre income. During 1902, in depressed conditions, he was one of many Palestinian Jews who sold their land to seek capital elsewhere in the hope of eventual return.

Margolin found suitable homes for his sister and brother and sailed for Australia. He worked as a navvy and teamster and, after learning some English, opened a small medical supplies factory in Sydney before moving to the mining town of Collie, Western Australia, where he ran a cordial factory. He was naturalized in 1904. He now found the opportunity to indulge his passion for soldiering. In 1911 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and formed the Collie Company of the 1st Battalion, Western Australian Infantry Regiment, Australian Military Forces. Although 39 in 1914, he belonged in spirit to that generation that welcomed war as the chance of a lifetime. On 1 October he joined the 16th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, as a lieutenant; in December he was promoted captain.

On 25 April 1915 Margolin, leading 'B' Company, was among the first of his battalion to land on Gallipoli. His troops knew him affectionately as 'Margy'—a disciplinarian, taciturn, quick-tempered but fair and courageous, who always showed great concern for their welfare. He was tall and dark and had a low voice with a Russian accent, also noticeable when he spoke Hebrew and Arabic. On 18 September 1915 Major Margolin took temporary command of the battalion and commanded its rear party during the evacuation. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

In France Margolin was wounded several times in 1916-17. From June to September 1917 he was temporary lieutenant-colonel in command of the 14th Battalion, then returned to the 16th until he was evacuated with an injury. In September he was mentioned in dispatches. Later that month while recovering from a knee injury in a London hospital, he accepted command of the 39th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, one of three volunteer Jewish battalions of the British Army formed to fight the Turks in Palestine. On 18 March 1918, as a lieutenant-colonel, he took command of his battalion, telling his troops that 'our aim is to participate in the fighting on the front of Eretz Israel and the liberation of our homeland'. Later at Rehovot he persuaded friends to organize another fighting unit which within a few weeks became the 40th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. In September these raw, somewhat ineffectual Jewish battalions under General Allenby joined the Anzac light horse which drove the Turks from northern Palestine.

After the Armistice when most Jewish volunteers had left for their homes, Margolin remained in Palestine. During the summer of 1919 he organized a new unit, 'The First Jewish Battalion of Judea', with its own uniform and insignia—with Hebrew the language of command but remaining part of and financed by the British Army. In May 1920 without British authority Margolin intervened with about 300 of his soldiers in Arab-Jewish riots in Tel-Aviv. British commanders threatened to court-martial him but after hearing his case they gave him an honourable discharge and ordered him to leave the country.

Margolin felt no remorse, believing that Jews had to fight for Israel with their own army. He became a hero of the Palestinian Jews who knew him as the first commander of Judea and appointed him governor of Jerusalem. On his return to Western Australia in 1921 he bought a service station at Nedlands, Perth. He became vice-president of the local Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, a foundation member of the Perth Legacy Club, and president of the Naval and Military Club and of the 16th Battalion Association. On 24 July 1926 in a civil ceremony he married Hilda Myrtle England. They had no children.

On 2 June 1944 Margolin died of cerebral haemorrhage and was cremated after a non-denominational ceremony at Karrakatta cemetery. In December 1949 his widow, as requested in his will, took his ashes, ceremonial sword, medals and decorations to Israel. A military guard of honour met her at Haifa and led a procession through the village of the Jewish Legion, Avichail, including the Eliezer Margolin Square, to Tel-Aviv, Sarafand and to Rehovot, where his ashes were buried next to his parents' graves. Among the mourners was Israel's prime minister, David Ben Gurion, a former officer in Margolin's Jewish battalion. In 1956 a memorial to Lieutenant-Colonel Margolin was unveiled at Rehovot.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Gullett, The A.I.F. in Sinai and Palestine (Syd, 1923)
  • C. Longmore, The Old Sixteenth (Perth, 1929)
  • Y. Biber, Commander of Judea (Israel, 1978, text in Hebrew translated in part by A. Troy in his A. G. Korunski memorial lecture, Perth, 1982)
  • Mail (Fremantle), 19 Nov 1931
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 28 June 1944
  • Reveille (Sydney), Aug 1944
  • Signaller E. Silas, diary Oct 1914–Sept 1916 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Welborn, 'Margolin, Eliezer (Lazar) (1875–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/margolin-eliezer-lazar-7484/text13009, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 May 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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