Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Quintessential Mensch

People who knew Abe Zelmanowitz describe him as a soft spoken, gentle man who did everything for everybody. His composure and aura of calm gave coworkers a reason to seek out his cubicle when they were stressed out on the job. His generosity showed up in both simple acts, like cooking for his elderly parents every month, and grand acts, like the one that ultimately led to his demise. Instead of leaving Tower 1 of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Zelmanowitz chose to stay with his friend, Ed Beyea, a quadriplegic man who could not be carried down the stairs due to his heavy stature.

A Marina Park street was renamed Tuesday in memory of Zelmanowitz, whom the city, and most everyone who hears his tale, consider a 9/11 hero. The street, E. 35th St. at King’s Highway, will now be sub-named “9/11/01 Hero Abe (Avremel) Zelmanowitz Way.”

Family, friends and former neighbors gathered to pay tribute to Zelmanowitz, who lived with his brother and sister-in-law just down the block from where his name is now immortalized on a street sign.

“It serves as a phenomenal inspiration to each and every one of us that in his death he taught us to live” said Council Member Lewis Fidler, who officiated at the ceremony and sponsored the legislation to rename the street. “I very much hope that people will understand what we mean by ‘9/11 hero.’ That what he did and how he did it really tells young people what heroism about, what courage is about, what selflessness is about.”

Zelmonowitz’s story of selflessness inspired people all over the country to write letters to his brother and sister-in-law, who keep every written tribute to him in a book that they show to visitors with pride. But the tributes to and commemorations of how he died are less important than how he lived, said Nancy Zelmanowitz, who is married to Abe’s nephew, Chaim. “If you had met us before [September 11th], and you had asked anyone about him, you would have heard the same stories.”

You would have surely heard stories about the unlikely friendship between Zelmanowitz, a tall, reserved, orthodox Jew, and Beyea, a large, boisterous Irish Catholic man, confined to a wheelchair after a diving accident some 20 years ago. The pair met as computer programmers at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and bonded over a love of music and books, said Evelyn Zelmanowitz, Abe’s sister-in-law. The two had a playful relationship at work that was characterized by a lighthearted one-upmanship. Whenever the pair dined at restaurants alone or with colleagues, Abe always made sure that the place had a wheelchair ramp, and Ed always made sure that the restaurant was Kosher.

Their bond was made painfully clear to Zelmanowitz’s family members the day of the attacks, as he spoke to them by phone. He told his brother, Jack, that he had sent Beyea’s personal aid down to safety and that he would be taking care of his friend until help arrived.

As the shock set in during the days, weeks and years to follow, friends and loved ones decided that they needed to have some kind of permanent tribute to Zelmanowitz, who was known to everyone in the largely Orthodox neighborhood as “Avremel.” Barry Smith, Past President of the Frasier Civic Association, was instrumental to getting the word to the community board. Smith was present for the dedication and appeared moved, even though he never met Zelmanowitz. “A French philosopher said ‘you never truly die until the last person who utters your name passes,’” he said, pointing to the new street sign. “This will serve as a notice to who this is.”

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