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Henry Victor Besso Collection

Identifier: ASF AR-9

Scope and Content Note

The Henry Victor Besso Papers (1905-1992) are arranged in eight series and include audio materials, brochures, booklets, card catalogues, clippings, conference procedures, correspondence, government publications, minutes, notes, photographs, printed matter, reports, speeches, writings and translations by Henry Besso and others.

The collection documents the work of Henry Besso and reflects various aspects of his professional life, personal research and writing in the fields of Sephardic culture, Spanish language and history, linguistics and his involvement with Sephardic studies. There is an abundance of materials related to Henry Besso's major interests, including Sephardic subjects, Spanish language and history, and linguistics. The collection includes most of Besso's manuscripts and articles.

The collection is divided into eight Series: Alphabetical; Benardete, Mair Jose; Besso, Henry, Writings; Published Materials; Sephardic Press; Sephardim in Many Lands; Subject Files; and Unfiled. The records are arranged alphabetically by topic within each series. In many cases topics of different series overlap.

The central topic of this collection is Henry Besso's involvement in the field of Sephardic studies. Besso's contribution to this field is well represented by the abundance of his writings, reports presented at various conferences, and printed materials dealing with various aspects of Sephardic subjects. Materials dealing with Sephardic subjects cover such areas as Sephardic culture, literature and language, history, and communities.

Documents pertaining to Sephardic culture cover themes such as Sephardic folklore, (with an emphasis on customs, holidays, folktales, and festivals) and Sephardic music (Romancero), and include song lyrics, sheet music, biographical materials on performers, phono discs, and manuscripts (Series III and Series VII). Of special interest are Sephardic Ballads, Popular Songs, Liturgical Hymns and Musical Composition (Box 11 and Box 50) and Judeo-Spanish Popular Songs, by Isaac Sene (Box 29 and Box 34).

There is a wealth of materials pertaining to Sephardic literature and language that deal with themes such as the development of Judeo-Spanish (also known as Judezmo or Ladino), its growth and decline, and Sephardic Theater. These materials include various bibliographies of Sephardic literature, Sephardic proverbs and sayings, and biographical materials on Sephardic writers (Series I, Series II, Series III, Series VII, Series VIII). Of special interest are Ladino Books in the Library of Congress (Box 11 and Box 50), Ladino Books Printed in Salonica in the Libraries of the United States (Box 2), Sephardic Ballads, Popular Songs, Liturgical Hymns and Musical Composition (Box 11 and Box 50), Dramatic Literature of the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, Holland in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Box 4 and Box 50), and Diccionario Judeo-Espagnol de Salonica, by E. Saporta (Box 27).

Materials pertaining to Sephardic History cover such topics as the history of Spanish Jews and Jewish-Christian relation, and include, among other documents, biographical materials and manuscripts dedicated to well known Jews of Sephardic origin, such as Baruch Spinoza and Moses Maimonides. Of special interest is a bibliography of Maimonides and related materials (Box 6, Box 46, and Box 50), Jews in Portugal, a Bibliography (Box 1), and Sephardic Jews in Spain From the Time of Their Settlement Until Their Expulsion in 1942 (Box 5 and Box 11). Materials on the general history of Jews in Greece, Holland, Israel, Spain, and the United States are also found in the collection.

Materials dealing with Sephardic communities and organizations cover religious as well as secular organizations and pertain to a myriad of functions performed by these organizations, which include educational programs and cultural activities. Most of these are published materials with some correspondence. (Series IV, Series V, and Series VI).

A secondary theme of the collection is Henry Besso's association with academia and the field of linguistics. A considerable portion of these materials relate to Spanish language studies and include reports and lectures from various Spanish language congresses. They consist of correspondence, manuscripts, and printed matter. Most of these materials are in Spanish (Series I and Series III).

A third prominent topic frequently encountered in the collection is Spanish history. Materials associated with this topic are scattered throughout the collection being best represented in Series I, Series VII, and Series VIII. These materials include biographical and historical materials on prominent Spanish writers, politicians and communal leaders and consist mostly of printed materials, manuscripts, and correspondence.

There are very few materials on the history of Jews in Greece and materials pertaining to Voice of America, for which Besso worked for many years.


  • 1905-1992
  • Majority of material found in 1940-1976


Language of Materials

The collection is in Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Ladino, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish

Access Restrictions

Open to researchers.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:

American Sephardi Federation, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011


Biographical Note

Henry Victor Besso, scholar in the field of Sephardic Studies, writer, teacher, lecturer, and bibliographer, was born in Thessalonikē, Greece in 1905.

In 1920, after the death of both of his parents, Henry and his brother came to the United States and settled in New York. He earned a BA from the City College of New York in 1931, and an MA from the Graduate School of Columbia University in 1934.

From January 1933 to May 1941, Besso worked in various capacities for the Board of Education of New York City.

In May 1941, he began working for the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in Washington, D.C. As part of his professional duties, Besso prepared, in a collaboration with Solomon Lipp, Conversational Spanish for the Army Air Forces of the United States which was published in 1941 by Hastings House, New York. Later Besso began his long-term association with Voice of America as a research analyst and speechwriter. During WWII, he worked for a number of federal agencies in Washington, D.C.

While working as a Librarian and General Editor with the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division) in the late 1940s, Besso was in charge of the preparation of 16 Bibliographical Guides to the Official Publications of the Latin American Republics, which were published in 1947 and 1948. During his tenure at the Library of Congress, Henry Besso began working on a bibliography of Judeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino, books at the Library of Congress. The work, entitled Ladino Books in the Library of Congress, a Bibliography, was published in 1963. It consists of 289 Ladino titles found at the Library of Congress, and is still one of the most authoritative listings of Ladino literature (Box 11 and Box 50). Among Besso's other works in this field are: Dramatic Literature of the Sephardim of Amsterdam, Holland, in the 17th and 18th Centuries; Bibliografia de Maimonides, a list of more than 2000 titles about the work, studies and translations of works by and about Moses Maimonides; Bibliography of Sephardic Proverbs; Don Ramon Menendez Pidal and the Romancero Sefardi, etc.

Henry Besso was associated with the field of teaching and academia for many years. He taught and gave lectures at a number of universities in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. In 1964 Besso lectured and presented his Bibliografia de Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain on the occasion of a celebration in honor of Moses Maimonides. Henry Besso attended a number of international congresses in many countries around the globe, notably in 1960, when he was the first Sephardi Delegate to attend the Tercer Congress of Spanish language Academies.

Besso wrote extensively on Spanish and Judeo-Spanish history, culture, literature and linguistics and made a name for himself in academic circles in this field. One of the most notable of his works in this area is Sephardic Jews in Spain From the Time of Their Settlement Until Their Expulsion. Later in his years, appreciation of his academic work earned him recognition by Instituto Arias Montano in Madrid, Spain; Hispanic Institute of Columbia University in New York, United States as well as a number of other scholarly honors.

In addition, Besso wrote extensively on topics related to Spanish and French literature and linguistics. Of special interest are Two Hundred and Seventy Five Spanish Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions Compiled, Arranged and Translated into English Together with an Introduction, and French Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions, Arranged, Selected and Translated into English with an Introduction and Notes.

Furthermore, Henry Besso contributed to a large number of scholarly journals and magazines in Columbia, Spain, France, the United States and other countries.

In addition to the fields of academic and Sephardic studies, Besso was active in the communal life of Sephardic Jews. He was involved with the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America and helped establish the Brotherhood Scholarship Fund. He also served as Executive Director of the American Branch of the World Sephardi Federation. In 1967, he helped to found the American Society of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University in New York.

In 1976, Henry Besso was honored by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, which published Tract XI, dedicated to Henry Besso. The work, entitled Study of the Meaning of Ladino, Judezmo and the Spanish-Jewish Dialect includes a comprehensive bibliography of Besso's writings as well as reprints of many of his articles.

In the late 1970s, Besso retired and moved to Florida but still kept close contact with scholars, students, and communal leaders of Sephardic communities as well as with those interested in Sephardic culture. Henry Besso died at the age of 87 in 1993 in Florida, United States.


59.25 Linear Feet


The collection documents the work of Henry Besso and reflects various aspects of his professional life, personal research and writings in the field of Sephardic culture, Spanish language and linguistics, and Sephardic and Spanish history. Collection also documents Besso's involvement with Sephardic organizations and communities. Collection includes audio materials, brochures, booklets, clippings, conference procedures, correspondence, government publications, minutes, notes, photographs, printed matter, reports, speeches, and writings and translations by Henry Besso and others.



  1. Series I: Alphabetical, 1910-1985
  2. Series II: Benardete, Mair Jose, 1927-1982
  3. Series III: Besso's Writings, 1924-1982
  4. Series IV: Published Materials, 1905-1992
  5. Series V: Sephardic Press, 1913-1982
  6. Series VI: Sephardim in Many Lands, 1908-1981
  7. Series VII: Subject Files, 1920-1989
  8. Series VIII: Unfiled, 1885-1990
  9. Addendum, undated

Acquisition Information

Collection was donated to the American Sephardic Federation in January 2005 by Henry Besso' nephew, Victor Besso and Besso's son, Victor Rene Besso.

Separated Material

Books have been separated from Henry Besso Papers and incorporated into ASF library.

Processing Information

Original order was preserved for Series I, Series II, Series III, Series V, Series VI, and Series VII. These Series retained the titles assigned to them by Henry Besso. Series IV: Published Materials and Series VIII: Unfiled, are made up of the bulk of material marked by Henry Besso as 'Unfiled or Misfiled'. Materials within each series were grouped together by subject and arranged in alphabetical order. The description of each folder includes folder title and date. Processing the collection involved encapsulating photos, photocopying of the most fragile newsprint and thermofaxes, re-boxing and re-foldering using acid-free archival supplies, removing rubber bands, staples and paperclips (and other metal fasteners) where appropriate.

Guide to the Papers of Henry Victor Besso ( 1905-1993), 1885-1992 (bulk 1940-1979) ASF AR-9
Processed by Yakov Sklyar
© 2005
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the American Sephardi Federation Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States