BESSO, HENRY (1905–1993), scholar of Sephardi studies. Born in Salonica, Besso went to the College St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle. He moved to New York after the death of his parents, where he joined his brothers and worked with an export-import firm while pursuing his education in the evening at the City College of New York, where he earned his B.A. (1931) and later at Columbia University (1935). Because his firm collapsed he became eligible for work under the provisions of the wpa and began working as a teacher of French and Spanish in New York's Adult Education department and was soon training teachers and creating curricula to assist his students. With the world war looming, he was moved to Washington to train Army Air Force and Navy officers and government officials for their missions abroad and then became a research analyst and speech writer for the Voice of America beginning many decades of service to that agency.
In 1945 he was sent to Biarritz American University in France and then to the Command School in Germany to teach Spanish and French. While in Europe he lectured on Hispanic and Judeo-Spanish language and culture. He became a respected lecturer on Sephardi culture and a communal activist in the Sephardi Jewish Brotherhood of America and was for a time executive director of the World Sephardi Federation. In 1963, he researched and edited a listing of 289 Judeo-Spanish works he had uncovered at the Library of Congress in Washington, d.c. To this day 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. In 1967 he became one of the founders of the American Society for Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University.
On the eve of his retirement in 1976, the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture devoted its Tract xi to him. 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 as "a most distinguished contemporary scholar, whose numerous and varied works on Sephardic culture and folklore will always be remembered."
[Efraim Zadoff (2nd ed.)]