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John Dalton (1923–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

On September 2, 1939, with Poland being overrun by the German army and the world on the brink of war, a story appeared on the front page of the leading newspaper in Budapest: ''Penguin Colony at Risk of Destruction.''

John Dalton loved to tell that story to convey the surreal, but touching, notion that even with the world verging on catastrophe, there were still people in it who cared enough about penguins. This ability to think positively and retain humanity, decency and a childlike sense of wonder in the face of adversity were hallmarks of his personality throughout his life.

John Dalton was born Janos Otto Dick in 1923, the son of Istvan Dick, the director of an investment bank in Budapest, and Klara (nee Hahn). The country was ruled by a fascist government under Miklos Horthy. Dalton would gleefully mock his country of birth as the only landlocked nation with a navy and led by an admiral. He detested the country's racial policies, including its anti-Semitism and class divisions. He told the story that when president Roosevelt was informed Hungary had declared war on the US, he asked an aide to bring him a map to find it.

Dalton's family was wealthy and the young Dalton did not suffer during the Great Depression. He was a teenager when Hungary entered the war. He was kept relatively safe at the beginning due to his family's status and was a member of the Budapest rowing club in 1939. But things became serious in March 1944 when the Germans occupied Budapest. He was sent to a forced-labour camp, then escaped and found in October that the Hungarian Nazis had taken over the government. In a three-month campaign to rid the country of Jews, the Nazis rounded up and deported 400,000 to the death camp of Auschwitz.

Many local Jews were being held in the Obuda Brick Factory in Budapest. It just so happened that his father's bank had owned the factory and Dalton had worked there as a teenager, so he knew his way around. Dalton, then 21, and two colleagues – one of them a German officer who disagreed with Nazi policies – pretended to be German and Hungarian officials, walked into the factory and called out the names of prisoners for supposed work details. They marched them out, then released them. They did this again and 100 Jews got their freedom. Then the guards realised what was happening. One of the trio, Steven Kelen, jumped out of the fourth floor of a building with his wife, survived the fall and escaped. The fate of the German officer is unknown, as is how Dalton himself escaped.

But Dalton not only escaped, he somehow managed to continue his studies and graduated in law from the University of Budapest in 1945.

Dalton's father was shot by the Nazis during a forced march from Hungary. It ended a little better for Dalton's brother, Tommy, who was lined up to be shot, turned his head at the last second and had the bullet pass through his jaw. He fell into the Danube, floated as if dead and got away.

After the war, Dalton was eager to leave Hungary. He migrated to Australia. His mother and Tommy migrated to Canada. Of Australia, Dalton knew nothing, apart from the fact it was the furthest point he could get from Europe. He wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible and changed his name. He had only a limited command of English, which made the practice of law difficult, so he studied accounting by night, working as a welder with the company Angus & Coote, which at the time was manufacturing upmarket household products. He learnt English by reading The Sydney Morning Herald (using a dictionary as he did so), attended a number of screenings of the same film and visited the State Library of NSW.

In 1959, Dalton married Barbara Hill, a union that was to flourish. He further integrated with the community, becoming a founding member of the Rotary Club of St Leonards in 1969.

In 1987, he was recommended to Yad Vashem, the Israeli organisation that honoured those who helped Jews during the Holocaust. The letter of recommendation was written by Edith Steiner, one of those he had rescued.

During a period of 42 years, Dalton was the Rotary club president twice. He helped raise funds for projects as diverse as landmines in Cambodia and shopping nights for the disabled. In 2000, Dalton was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the Australian community.

He retired in 2006, at the age of 83, and threw himself into Rotary and volunteer work. He indulged in his passion for art and became involved in numerous projects and with the University of the Third Age. He helped many groups that opposed injustice, including Austcare in its campaign to remove landmines in Cambodia. Dalton was also a dedicated volunteer at the Chatswood Intensive English Centre.

He is survived by his children, Choon, Linda and Andrew; sons-in-law Meng and Paul; and grandchildren Nicole, Monica, Emily, Lily and Jem.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Dalton, John (1923–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dick, Janos Otto

Budapest, Hungary


2011 (aged ~ 88)

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