Wiesel chides morally ill deniers

Elie Wiesel’s last visit to San Francisco was hardly a banner day for tourism here.

The survivor, author and human rights advocate was physically assaulted by a deranged Holocaust denier at a February peace conference, forcing him to leave town ahead of schedule. Wiesel noted that he hadn’t been so terrified in decades.

Glancing around a roomful of San Francisco media members with his trademarked world-weary expression on Wednesday, May 9, Wiesel cracked a quick grin and quipped that “I’ve never felt as safe in my life.”

The two members of the S.F. Police Department and four full-time guards from a private security service might have had something to do with that. Coming back to San Francisco didn’t faze Wiesel.

“I knew they’d have security. I’m not nervous at all. The security people are more nervous than I am.”

Wiesel landed in San Francisco Wednesday morning, May 9 and departed Wednesday night after accepting this year’s Koret Prize — the first awarded by the foundation since 2004 — and the $250,000 that comes with it. The money will be allocated to the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

Wiesel’s alleged attacker, 22-year-old Eric Hunt, remains in custody in his native New Jersey. His extradition to California was approved May 2. Hunt is wanted in San Francisco on six criminal counts: kidnapping, false imprisonment, battery, elder abuse, false imprisonment of an elder and stalking. His bail in California was set at $500,000.

San Francisco police discovered Hunt’s driver’s license in the vehicle he left parked at the Argent Hotel, where the assault took place. Wiesel was shown the ID and said Hunt is “absolutely” the man who dragged him from an elevator, noting that he will testify in court if asked. Wiesel added that the facts in Hunt’s semi-coherent online account of the attack posted on an anti-Semitic Web site are essentially correct. (A glaring exception is the portion in which Hunt claims Wiesel did not inform the police of the attack because it would force Wiesel to admit that the Holocaust was a fabrication.)

“Since 1945, I have been in many places of danger. … I was never really afraid. This time, in San Francisco, I felt fear,” he said in his typically soft-spoken manner, forcing the smattering of reporters to crane forward in their chairs in an effort to catch his words.

“When I found out about [the attacker’s] motive, I was surprised and not surprised. Holocaust deniers are so many, all over the world, everywhere. They exist. I call them not mentally ill, but morally ill. When I got the Nobel Prize, outside was a demonstration of Holocaust deniers from all over Europe. Who organized this? Who paid for their air tickets? Who arranged for their hotels? I don’t know, but they were there and I’m not surprised.”

Through his foundation, Wiesel is expressing his desire to “move the world a little forward.” He has gotten the King of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas involved, together, in charitable projects. Wiesel will be meeting with King Abdullah in Jordan later this month.

Wiesel, a professor at Boston University, is not yet certain how he will apply the $250,000 prize from the Koret Foundation. But he is sure how he won’t apply it. Asked if he would put the money toward combating Holocaust deniers, he replied. “I would not lend them the dignity of diverting funds from other education initiatives.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.