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Gaddafi’s Brooklyn Pen Pal

Eliyahu Ackerman

What prompted a cadre of determined journalists to descend on the Canarsie home of an elderly retired florist named Louis Schlamowitz following the recent liquidation of Muammar Gaddafi? What connection did an American Jewish octogenarian have with the leader of the Islamic Republic of Libya? In truth — not very much. Unless you take into account signed pictures, cards, and letters from the deranged despot who took the time to correspond with the 81-year-old Brooklynite for more than three decades.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

 Louis Schlamowitz sent off his first piece of fan mail while he was a young army private stationed in Korea. The army distributed holiday greeting cards for the soldiers to send back to their families, and Schlamowitz had one extra card.

 

“Why not send it to President Truman?” his friend suggested.

 

“He won’t reply to me,” Schlamowitz recalls saying. “I’m just a buck private.” But his friend insisted. What did he have to lose?

 

No one was more surprised than Schlamowitz when, during a period of fierce combat on the Korean front, he was summoned to pick up a letter that had been sent to him directly from the White House. Indeed, it was no more than a casual thank-you note in which the president of the United States (or, more accurately, one of his lower-ranking officials) thanked him for his kind wishes in honor of the New Year, but the presidential signature appeared at the bottom of the postcard. It was an eye-opener. Schlamowitz realized that it was possible to make contact with famous people, even over a distance of thousands of kilometers. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

After returning to civilian life, Schlamowitz’s new passion took off. Whenever he identified an interesting name in a newspaper, Schlamowitz tried to find out a few basic details about the person — their date of birth, for instance, or the date when they were elected to their position of authority. He enjoyed surprising famous personalities by having a letter delivered to them on their birthdays or other dates of personal significance to them. Amazingly, many responded with a letter of heartfelt thanks that sometimes represented the beginning of an extended relationship.

 

Schlamowitz has autographed pictures of every American astronaut who has ever traveled into outer space, every Israeli prime minister from Ben-Gurion to Netanyahu, every American general to be appointed in each division of the American armed forces, every famous figure who was involved in the Watergate scandal, every American president from Herbert Hoover through Barack Obama, and almost every enemy that the United States has ever had — from Hafez Assad to Muammar Gaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini.

 

Schlamowitz also has a separate binder containing the autographs of the exiled Shah of Iran and of most of the hostages who were captured in the American embassy after the Iranian Revolution.

 

His correspondence with Khomeini began in a completely random way. “I read in the newspaper that an exiled Iranian leader was leading the struggle against the Shah from France. His picture, with his beard and turban, aroused my curiosity and I decided to try my luck. I somehow managed to obtain the details of the address where he was living and the day when he celebrated his birthday, and I sent him a letter.”

 

Three weeks after the letter was sent on its way, the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran. The Shah was exiled and Khomeini seized power. It was months before Schlamowitz received his reply, but when it came, Khomeini was no longer an anonymous revolutionary. “I don’t think he sent many letters to the United States that year. Who knows? Maybe I was his only American letter writer.” Schlamowitz is quick to add that he was no Khomeini sympathizer. “I’m just a nudnik who doesn’t discriminate; I pester everyone equally.”

 

A similar pattern took place with Gaddafi. Schlamowitz’s first letter to the Libyan dictator was sent immediately after Gaddafi rose to power in 1969. It was a letter of congratulations in honor of the festive event. One month later, Gaddafi repaid his kindness by sending a personally autographed photo of himself together with a letter that said, “Your kind message to Col. Muammar Gaddafi, leader of the great first September revolution, has been received with great appreciation.” Schlamowitz, a proud Jew and Zionist, also received Christmas cards from the Muslim leader.

 

“He was a good pen pal. I felt it was nice of him to take the time to write back to me, because I’m nobody special.” The two continued to exchange birthday and New Year’s greetings, and occasional ideological correspondences, including a paranoid two-page rant by Gaddafi at the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979: “We call upon our friends all over the world to use every possible means to remind the American administration of its wrong policy,” he wrote his Jewish Brooklyn pen pal.

 

In 1988, Schlamowitz wrote to Gaddafi that he was breaking off contact with the dictator after the Libyan terrorist attack on a Pan-Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that resulted in hundreds of deaths. In the wake of the attack, many European countries broke off diplomatic relations with the Libyan ruler. Yet Gaddafi, who was prepared to give up his relationship with British and French diplomats, was apparently unwilling to give up so quickly on his relationship with the floral arranger from a Canarsie housing project.

 

In 1991, with the outbreak of the First Gulf War, Gaddafi laid out his political ideology and his complaints against the White House to his American pen pal. “Go tell your president to stop providing Israel with weapons and planes that are used to attack the Palestinian refugee camps. America’s countering of those people’s struggle is a crime against humanity and liberty.” He signed the letter, “Muammar Gaddafi — leader and hero of the revolution.”

 

Not that Schlamowitz could do anything about it. He was a simple florist from Brooklyn, and a staunch supporter of Israel at that.

 

In 2000, the “hero of the revolution” once again sent a New Year’s card to Schlamowitz, thanking him for his “friendship throughout the years.”

 

Schlamowitz decided to break his years-long moratorium on communication with Gaddafi when he read about the uprising that had broken out in Libya. He penned a letter advising Gaddafi to follow the example of President Mubarak — another of Schlamowitz’s regular pen pals — and abdicate his position while it was still possible. “If you don’t do the right thing for your people and your country, eventually your people will turn against you,” he told the dictator. A few weeks later, the letter was returned unopened.

 

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