V. Besso Z"L
writer, lecturer, researcher and bibliographer - a scholar who had
dedicated his life to the pursuit of Sephardic studies."
V. Besso was born in Salonica, and received his early education at the
Salonica Altshek Institute de Commerce, and at the College St. Jean
Baptiste de la Salle. After the death of both parents, young Henry followed
his older brother to New York City. Here he found work with an import-export
firm, quickly becoming the assistant manager in charge of exports to
Latin America, Spain and the Philippines.
a commercial career helped Besso provide a comfortable living for his
wife and son, it did not satisfy his craving for knowledge. While he
worked during the days, he attended evening classes and studied late
into the night, earning his B.A. degree from New York City College in
1931, and his M.A. from Columbia University Graduate School in 1935.
firm closed during the Depression, and Besso qualified for a position
in the federal project called WPA (Works
Progress Administration). He was placed in the New York Adult Education
Program, teaching French and Spanish, but was soon supervising and training
other teachers. In 1940, he was transferred to Washington, DC to train
Air Force and Naval officers as well as US government officials, in
preparation for their special overseas missions. This assignment led
to his becoming a research analyst and speechwriter for the Voice of
America (VOA), and for decades he was to connected with that federal
organization in its Washington offices.
after WWII, Besso was sent to Europe to again instruct military personnel
in French and Spanish. While abroad he was invited to lecture at a number
of universities in France and in Spain, and his writing in the field
of Hispanic and Judeo-Spanish linguistics, history and culture made
him a well known in academic circles in his field. In his later years,
his extensive scholarly contributions were acknowledged by the Instituto
Arias Montano of Madrid, and the Hispanic Institute of Columbia University,
and he received several scholarly honors. In 1963, he researched, edited
and published a listing of 289 Judeo-Spanish
works he uncovered at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. To
this day, his work, Ladino Books in the Library of Congress - A Bibliography,
is still considered one of the definitive bibliographic listings of
the world's great collections of Judeo-Spanish literature.
important as Sephardic scholarship and studies was to Besso, he also
took part in its communal life. For many years, Besso was an active
member of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, taking
a special interest in the establishment of the Brotherhood Scholarship
Fund. He also served for a time as Executive Director of the American
Branch of the World Sephardi Federation. In 1967 he became one of
the founders of the American Society of Sephardic Studies at
Yeshiva University in New York. During these years he continued to find
time to write, to travel and to lecture, dedicating himself to the culture
and language of the Spanish Jews. He remained busy for many decades
in the field of both Spanish and Sephardic studies.
all the accolades and tributes Besso had received, perhaps the most
heartfelt was the one he received on the eve of his retirement in 1976.
This honor came not from any academic institution or society, but from
within the Sephardic community. The Foundation for the Advancement
of Sephardic Studies and Culture devoted its Tract XI to
Henry Besso - teacher, writer, lecturer, researcher and bibliographer
- a scholar who had dedicated his life to the pursuit of Sephardic studies.
Entitled, Study of the Meaning of Ladino, Judezmo and the Spanish-Jewish
Dialect, it included reprints of many of Besso's articles and writings,
with an extensive and thorough bibliography of his works. The volume
was dedicated to Besso - "A most distinguished contemporary scholar,
whose numerous and varied works on Sephardic culture and folklore will
always be remembered."
was still associated with VOA up until the late 1970's when he left
active service, remarried and retired to Florida. Up until his death
in 1993, Besso was still engaged in constant correspondence with rabbis,
scholars and students from various parts of the world who were interested
in Sephardic studies. Besso always extended his assistance most generously,
anxious to do his utmost to pass on to others the fruits of his linguistic
and academic knowledge, as well as his love for his Sephardic heritage.