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(photo credit: AP [file])
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel returned to San Francisco under heightened security Wednesday for his first visit since being attacked at a city hotel in February.
Guarded by private contractors and police, Wiesel told a group of reporters that though he has traveled to dangerous places all over the world since the end of World War II, the assault allegedly committed by a Holocaust denier was the first time he felt fear.
"I confess to you I was traumatized," said Wiesel, 78.
Eric Hunt, 22, of Sussex County, New Jersey, was arrested at a New Jersey behavioral health clinic in February after allegedly dragging Wiesel from an elevator at the Argent Hotel, where Wiesel was speaking at a San Francisco peace forum.
According to Wiesel, Hunt grabbed him, told him he was being taken "into his custody" and demanded he admit "the Holocaust is a lie."
Wiesel began yelling, and the suspect ran away, police said.
Hunt faces kidnapping, false imprisonment, battery, elder abuse, stalking and hate crime charges in San Francisco.
Hunt's New Jersey lawyer said his client was not an anti-Semite or Holocaust denier but a "very, very disturbed young man" suffering from bipolar disorder.
"The person who attacked Mr. Wiesel - there's no denying the horror and criminality of that," Hackensack defense attorney James Addis said. "But if in fact it turns out to have been Eric Hunt, I think that you'll find the origins of that behavior in psychological disease."
Hunt remained in Somerset County Jail in Somerville, New Jersey, awaiting extradition to California, Addis said.
Wiesel was in San Francisco to receive an award from the Koret Foundation for "a lifetime devoted to perpetuating Jewish life."
The location of Wiesel's appearance Wednesday was kept secret until reporters called to confirm their attendance, and their credentials were double-checked when they arrived.
Though Wiesel has faced harassment from Holocaust deniers for years, including at his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he said, the violence of the recent attack was a "new element to the equation."
"I call them not mentally ill but morally ill people," Wiesel said.
Wiesel said he believed anti-Semitism was on the rise worldwide and singled out Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for criticism, calling him the "number-one Holocaust denier in the world."
Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a "myth" and said Israel should be "wiped off the map," hosted a December conference in Tehran where delegates cast doubt on the genocide.
Wiesel, whose mother, sister and father all perished in Nazi concentration camps, survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and has authored more than 40 books, including the best-selling memoir "Night."