NEW YORK (PIX11) – Abe Lebewohl was known as the “Mayor of the East Village” and the colorful founder of a delightful, kosher restaurant: the 2nd Avenue Deli. As a child, he had survived Russian and German invasions in his native Poland with his parents, while the rest of his extended family perished. Five decades later, Lebewohl was fatally shot outside a bank on East 4th Street.
“Here’s a man who survived Stalin, he survived Hitler, and he dies on the streets of New York City,” said the current 2nd Avenue Deli manager, Steve Cohen, who rushed to the scene that morning of March 4, 1996. “Everybody loved him, except for one monster.”
Lebewohl founded the 2nd Avenue Deli in 1954. He had already celebrated 40 years in business, when he was robbed with a knife to his throat, the summer before his fatal encounter with a gunman. But he didn’t want to deviate from his regular, morning routine. The ritual was he would take the deli receipts from the night before–or the weekend before–and go to the bank around 9 am.
Abe’s younger brother, Jack Lebewohl, recalled a conversation he’d had with his brother, not long before Abe was killed. He quoted Abe, “As long as I give them the money, nobody’s going to kill me,” Jack Lebewohl remembered his brother saying. “Unfortunately, he was wrong.”
Abe Lebewohl had about $11,000 in cash when he made his trip to the bank at East 4th Street and Second Avenue on the morning of March 4, 1996. He parked his distinctive, 2nd Avenue Deli van right next to the bank, but he never made it out. A gunman apparently pushed him back in and shot him. The suspect drove the white van erratically down the block toward First Avenue and parked it haphazardly. The 64-year-old Lebewohl fell, mortally wounded, onto the sidewalk, from the side door of the van.
Retired NYPD Detective James Piccione, who handled the case for Manhattan South Homicide, told PIX 11 about the passer-by who encountered the dying, Abe Lebewohl. “And Abe says to this passerby, ‘They got me’ or “They shot me.’ But before Abe can say anything else, he dies.”
The East Village community held a massive funeral for the deli king who catered to celebrities and common folk alike. The 2nd Avenue Deli was famous for its pastrami sandwiches and matzoh ball chicken soup, but Abe was famous for treating everyone the same.
“He treated celebrities like his friends,” said Jack Lebewohl, referring to the photos of Abe posing with boxer Muhammed Ali, the late comedian, Bob Hope, and younger sitcom kings like Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.
Police found the gun used in Abe Lebewohl’s murder several days later, tossed in the grass near the Central Park Transverse at Fifth Avenue and 96th Street. Ballistics testing showed the very same gun had been used in a double homicide six months before, at a hotel in Westchester County. Another man in the Bronx had also been shot with this gun during a robbery, but he survived.
Nearly 18 years later, no one has ever been arrested for Abe Lebewohl’s murder. Detective Piccione said police have followed many leads, including the possibility that his killing involved an “inside job”.
The Lebewohl family moved the famous 2nd Avenue Deli to just west of 3rd Avenue–on 33rd Street–in 2007.
The night before the move, the family decided to increase the reward money in the murder case to a whopping $150,000–for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Anyone with information can call NYPD Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS.
Recalling Abe Lebewohl’s work ethic, his brother told PIX, “He would put in 14, 15 hour days. Slowing down for him was a 10 hour day.”