Abe Lebewohl was killed in broad daylight when he was delivering deposits to the bank in 1996, and to this day, his killer has not been caught. It remains today one of the most notorious cold cases in the state of New York. Lebewohl was a legendary owner of a New York kosher deli called the Second Avenue Deli and a beloved member of the community, known as “the Mayor of Second Avenue.”
According to Gary Buiso, Larry Celona, and Maureen Callahan at the New York Daily News the 64-year-old man was killed after two people came to his van and shot him three times. They then took off with $10,000 from his intended deposit and then ran away. According to a witness, when Lebewohl died, he screamed “they shot me!” as his final words.
Lebewohl was a Holocaust survivor who frequently gave to the homeless and fed them. The Second Avenue Deli is a kosher Jewish deli that relocated from 2nd Avenue to 162 East 33rd Street. In 1998, the store owned an America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation, after Lebewohl’s death.
A weapon was recovered a couple of days later — a .25 caliber handgun in central park. It was tied to a double murder in Westchester County a couple months earlier but there wasn’t enough evidence on the murder of Lebewohl.
Today, on E. 10 Street and 2nd Avenue, Abe Lebewohl Park commemorates his memory. According to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, he had transformed the Second Avenue Deli into a place that drew customers “ from celebrities, tourists and locals alike with his Jewish culinary delicacies and generous and magnetic spirit,” according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
To this day, it remains a painful case to the family. There is still an incentive of $150,000 for anyone who has information on the case, making it clear the family still hasn’t given up searching for the culprit. According to Jack Lebewohl, Abe’s brother 17 years his junior:
“Feels like it was yesterday…I just felt something in the pit of my stomach that it was something wrong… something serious happened.”
Who was Abe Lebewohl?
Lebewohl was born in Ukraine in 1931, but his father was promptly arrested after Soviet soldiers occupied western Ukraine. He would be separated from his father and Lebewohl himself would start living in Kazakhstan with his mother. However, his family would be reunited in Poland.
While in Poland, they survived invasions from both the Soviets and Germans. They survived the Holocaust, and according to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the family escaped Poland and went to Austria to a refugee camp in Italy. They lived in Italy for five years before moving to America in 1950.
For the first couple years the family was in America, Abe Lebewohl worked as a waiter in a coffee shop on Second Avenue. The family then bought the property in 1954 and made it a 250 seat restaurant, which became the Second Avenue Deli that served individuals as high profile as Joe DiMaggio, Joan Rivers, and Muhammad Ali. He also regularly served the homeless and workers on strike. It served both Jewish and Ukrainian delicacies, simple kosher food and was famous for its sandwiches.
Lebewohl was also very proud of his Ukrainian heritage. According to Helen Smindak at The Ukrainian Weekly, Lebewohl was fluent in Ukrainian. He traveled to Ukraine in the 1970s through a travel agency across the street. He traveled to Ukraine after the country declared its independence. He wanted to open a kosher deli in Lviv, close to where he was born.
“Everybody in the neighborhood loved Lebewohl,” True Crime Daily wrote.
As a boss, he would make every person in the store feel like family. Lebewohl and his family would epitomize the American Dream. Lebewohl would host many community events, being so respected and liked he was known as the “Mayor of 2nd Avenue.” Some even called him the “Jewish Mother Theresa” for his popularity and charity in the community.
To this day, no one knows who killed Lebewohl or why. Two retired detectives, Jeff Salta and James Piccione, are still trying to solve the case. The weapons were apparently linked to more murders, as well as a shooting where someone survived. It was found in Central Park by a pedestrian, but the ballistics tests didn’t lead to many leads.
“What we found out a few days after the gun was recovered was that gun was used in a robbery at the Sawmill River Parkway Motel, located in Elmsford, New York, and in that robbery two motel workers were killed…In 1994 that gun was used in a robbery where the victim was shot. But he survived. So we have one gun, three robberies, three people killed.” Piccone said.
Lebewohl was killed by two men who shot three bullets into him. He was sitting in his van, and then the men hijacked his van and drove a block before leaving the van with $10,000 in cash. Police found Lebewohl “on the street on the passenger side, lying face up.” The van was first driven down East Fourth Street and then abandoned on First Avenue.
According to Rachel Swarns at the New York Times, Lebewohl had a daily routine of picking up bread at 7 a.m. and then leaving the store after 9 a.m. to deposit the receipts. In the summer of 1995, he’d been robbed once, and many employees made offers to accompany him. However, he refused and told his employees not to worry.
It’s clear whoever killed him planned out the attacks and knew Lebewohl’s daily route. Piccone, at the time, thought detectives would solve the case quickly — it happened in broad daylight where there could have been a lot of witnesses. But it was also a cold winter morning, leading to not many witnesses. The killer has still not been found.
“Finding the murderer will not bring Abe back, but it will bring some sort of closure to the grief his family feels. The criminals should be punished for what they did. Without Abe, there would be no Second Avenue Deli. Abe did everything, helped everyone; you just don’t replace someone like that,” Jack Lebewohl said.
At Abe Lebewohl’s funeral, over 1,500 people attended, demonstrating the mark he left on New York and his local community. The retired detectives and the family are still searching for the killers.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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