Wiesel in court: All of a sudden I understood the incident

Rare is it that a jury gets an audience with a Nobel laureate. But earlier this week, jurors filed into Room 23 of the San Francisco Hall of Justice and listened raptly as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel testified against the man accused of attacking him in a San Francisco hotel last year.

With a calm dignity, the 79-year-old Wiesel took the stand July 7 and 8 to recount the details of the February 2007 run-in with an assailant who wanted Wiesel to declare that his Holocaust memoir “Night” was a work of fiction.

The writer and human rights activist was staying at the Argent Hotel in San Francisco for a peace conference when he was allegedly dragged out of an elevator by now-24-year-old Eric Hunt of Vernon, N.J.

Hunt has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of attempted kidnapping, false imprisonment, battery, elder abuse, stalking and a hate crime.

He was arrested at a New Jersey mental hospital after an essay boasting of his role in the incident was posted on an anti-Semitic Web site called Ziopedia.org. Defense attorney John Runfola said his client had no history with organized hate groups or anti-Semitism before a psychotic breakdown due to an undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Hunt’s Ziopedia.org essay was titled “Elie Wiesel and ‘The Big Lie.'”

Fewer than a dozen spectators were in attendance during Wiesel’s July 8 testimony, which lasted for more than two hours with one 10-minute break.

The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke into the microphone with his trademark softness but seemed insulted at times by the defense’s line of questioning — namely, the implication that Wiesel’s work and world events distorts his view of the incident.

During direct examination, Wiesel said, “[The Holocaust deniers] are not only unfair and unjust, but they are ugly. I don’t know how to respond to ugliness. But [Hunt’s essay] affected me.

“All of a sudden I understood the incident … Until then I was in the dark.”

Wiesel said the essay enabled him to realize that Hunt had a plan to force him to admit that “Night” was a fabrication.

Wiesel was broadly questioned by both sides about the incident with Hunt and his life experiences in general. “Jews were accused of killing God’s son — no accusation has done more harm than this one,” he observed at one point.

“To negate someone’s memory is a violation of that person’s humanity,” said Wiesel in response to a question about the concept of Holocaust denial. “So reading this document shook me up.”

Dressed in a suit, Hunt sat quietly with a remorseful look on his face while Assistant District Attorney Alan Kennedy asked Wiesel to read several passages from Hunt’s essay. Defense attorney Runfola attempted to object to the reading, but was overruled.

Wiesel read one passage where Hunt wrote of “exposing the myth of the Holocaust as the president of Iran has rightfully pointed out,” and another that described Wiesel’s “Night” as “the big lie.” When questioned about the nature of his book, Wiesel characterized it as “a book of truth, and truth unmitigated.”

Wiesel read further of how Hunt wanted him to take a lie detector test because “to free the people of the world, the big lie must be exposed.”

When asked about his feelings toward Hunt’s essay, Wiesel said, “It is an attack on the honor of an entire people … that’s why it upset me so deeply.”

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office said they don’t expect Wiesel to testify again, and that Hunt’s trial should be over by the end of the month.