Glancing around a roomful of journalists with his typical world-weary expression, Elie Wiesel cracked a grin and quipped, “I’ve never felt as safe in my life.”
No doubt the two members of the San Francisco Police Department and four security guards flanking him had something to do with Wiesel’s feeling of well-being on May 9.
The Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor was back in this city three months after being physically assaulted by a Holocaust denier at a peace conference.
Wiesel was here to accept the Koret Prize — the first awarded since 2004 — and the $250,000 that comes with it. The money will be allocated to the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
The San Francisco-based Koret Foundation awards the prize periodically for extraordinary contributions to Jewish life and culture.
After the hotel attack in February, Wiesel said he hadn’t been so terrified in decades. But coming back to San Francisco didn’t faze him.
“I knew they’d have security. I’m not nervous at all,” Wiesel said. “The security people are more nervous than I am.”
Wiesel’s alleged attacker, 22-year-old Eric Hunt, remains in custody in his native New Jersey. His extradition to California was greenlighted on 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 allegedly took place. Wiesel was shown the identification and said Hunt is “absolutely” the man who dragged him from an elevator.
“Since 1945, I have been in many places of danger,” Wiesel told the newspeople on Wednesday. “I was never really afraid. This time, in San Francisco, I felt fear.”
He said when he discovered the attacker’s motive, I was! surpris ed and not surprised. Holocaust deniers are so many, all over the world, everywhere. They exist and I call them not mentally ill but morally ill.”
Wiesel recalled that when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, there was a demonstration of Holocaust deniers from all over Europe.
“Who organized this? Who paid for their air tickets? Who arranged for their hotels?” he asked. “I don’t know, but they were there and I’m not surprised.”
Through his foundation, Wiesel expressed a desire to “move the world a little forward.”
He has involved the king of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas together in charitable projects. Wiesel will be meeting with King Abdullah in Jordan later this month.
Wiesel said he is not yet certain how he will apply the 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.”