She was an elderly, recently widowed Holocaust survivor living out what would be the last months of her life in a small Rego Park flat still haunted with memories of her husband. But as the investigation of Israeli Interior Minister and Sephardi kingmaker Aryeh Deri intensified in Jerusalem, it was Esther Werderber of Queens, strangely enough, who came under crushing pressure.
Werderber and her husband, Isser, play a crucial, but little-reported role in the scathing verdict passed down last week by the three-judge panel that convicted Deri of bribery and fraud. The verdict, an exhaustive, 417-page judgement, brims over at times with a righteous anger reminiscent of the Prophets. And it condemns Deri in particular for the way he subjected a hapless Esther Wurderber to a campaign of intimidation, in an effort to get him to help her by perjuring herself.
"She was the key to the truth," the judges wrote. But since the truth she had to offer could only hurt him, Deri, acting through his codefendants, prepared a false affidavit for her to sign, the verdict found. Citing tapes of those codefendants’ conversations with her, the judges wrote: "The pressures were unbearable. They tore Esther apart inside."
It all started in 1979, when Isser and Esther traveled to Israel to perform a mitzvah. Isser, who worked in a New York factory as a leather cutter, was, like his wife, a survivor who had come to America after the Holocaust. The childless couple came to Israel out of a desire to use their modest savings to endow a dowry for a bride in lieu of the daughter they never had.
At the Weingarten Orphanage in Jerusalem, the couple met and came to bond with 19-year-old Yaffa Cohen, a student there. And sometime later, when Yaffa gave her hand to a then-struggling student named Aryeh Deri, the Werderbers held an engagement party for them in Jerusalem’s Central Hotel.
In the years that followed, the couple regularly sent gifts of several hundred dollars to the financially strapped Deris on their birthdays and family events. When the newlyweds sought a modest apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, the Werderbers also put up some $30,000 to help them make the downpayment. This assistance, the judges noted dryly, was "generous, given the Werderbers’ modest way of life."
Even later, when Deri’s political talents catapulted him with breathtaking speed to the head of the ultra-traditionalist Shas party, an emergent force of often-neglected Sephardic Jews, the Werderbers continued to assist the couple. In 1985, Deri, already secretary general of the party, sold his Ramot flat and bought a more expensive one on Shaulson Street. According to the verdict, the $26,500 difference in the cost of the flats was underwritten by two Deri codefendants who kicked back state money Deri obtained for their yeshiva. But the Werderbers, hearing about the purchase of the new apartment after the fact, sent the Deris $4,000 as a gift for the new flat.
The Werderbers, according to testimony, regarded Yaffa Deri as their adopted daughter and "sought a warm relationship with the Deris," the judges wrote. "They had no children and befriending the young couple gave them a good feeling." All told, the court found, their gifts amounted to some $53,000, a sum that "exceeded the worth of their own apartment in New York."
But in 1987, when Deri, then director-general of the Interior Ministry, bought a more spacious apartment on Katzenlebogen Street, the Werderbers had nothing to do with covering the $110,000 cost, the court found. Nor were they involved with the luxury apartment Deri signed an agreement for in 1989, after he became Interior minister. That flat, complete with Jacuzzi, imported bathroom fixtures, air-conditioning, and a built-in, two-level vacuuming system, would come to at least $445,000.
By 1989, in fact, Isser’s health was deteriorating. But when Deri paid an official visit to New York as Interior minister in January 1990, the court noted, "He did not visit Isser on his sick bed. Isser died in great pain on March 12, 1990." Yaffa went to New York when informed of his death, and Isser’s body was flown to Jerusalem, where he was buried.
It was in June 1990, while Esther was visiting Israel for the unveiling of Isser’s headstone, that the police opened their inquiry into how Deri had financed his apartments and other lavish expenses. It was also during this visit that the Israeli daily Yediot Ahranot published the investigative series that first made public allegations that Deri’s lifestyle was financed with bribes.
Deri claimed initially the purchases were financed by his own means, by the sale of his previous flat and through loans. But when this could not explain the sums involved, his story changed: The money, said Deri, had come as gifts from his family’s long-time benefactors, the Werderbers.
"Logically," the judges wrote, "if there were any truth to the emerging version that the Werderbers had heaped hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, and not only $53,000, Deri would have given Esther’s name to the investigators immediately." He would have told the widowed Esther, "Mrs. Werderber, you and your late husband did a great mitzvah, you adopted Yaffa … you have showered us with largesse. … All eyes are turned to you and we await your word. Please do us this last kindness which derives from your first. Please appear before the police and give your testimony about the money."
But instead, the court found, citing taped phone conversations, Deri’s codefendant, Shmuel Weinberg, "exerted intolerable pressure on Esther to prevent her from being questioned. He exploited her loneliness, her widowhood and her fears originating in the Holocaust. He incited her against the police representatives and made them abhorrent to her: ‘Communists,’ ‘the Zionist guys’ who had come ‘to twist’ the head of ‘an old lady.’ "
And when a flustered Esther balked at signing a false affidavit affirming she and Isser had provided these sums, tapes made by the defendants themselves show her saying, "Have you ever heard of a minister in Israel … getting himself a luxury apartment? No one in the government of Israel has ever done luxury for himself."
She "groans," the court reports, "Better I should die than live. … He wants to cover himself. … He is going to blame me and Isser for everything. … They want me to go to jail for Aryeh. … I don’t want to go to jail. … He did it, let him pay for it."
Finally, an angry Esther threatened Deri codefendant Shmuel Weinberg that "tomorrow" she would go to another lawyer and sign a different affidavit.
"This was the last thing Shmuel wanted," the judges wrote. But some time later, they note, Esther was killed in a road accident.
Initially, Israeli investigators strongly suspected foul play. But New York authorities could find no evidence of this.
"She took the truth with her to the world of truth," the judges noted. But they added: "Esther left two pieces of evidence: the tapes and the draft of the affidavit she refused to sign. Both pieces of evidence are of Deri’s manufacture. The monster rose up against its maker. They contain the positive disproof of his version."
Deri verdict splitting Israeli society, page 48.