Meet ‘Mr. Folkmoot’: Rolf Kaufman has played a large part in festival’s success

Rolf Kaufman has been a fixture on the Folkmoot scene since before it even began, bringing people from foreign lands together and welcoming them to Western North Carolina much as he himself was welcomed here from a foreign land 70 years ago.

An only child, Kaufman says that he remembers fairly little about his youth in Germany. 

“I’ve been back on business a few times, once visited my old home site, but I no longer hold any resentment against today’s generation in Germany, he said. “They can’t be responsible for what their grandparents adhered to.”

Kaufman was born in Cologne in 1930. His first few years on this earth coincided with the dramatic rise of Adolph Hitler, who became Reich Chancellor in January 1933. 

In early 1935, Hitler announced Germany’s open defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, and began rearmament; in October, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, in effect stripping Jews of their citizenship. 

At some point during 1935, Kauffman’s family saw the writing on the wall and fled. 

“We’re Jewish. So it wasn’t very healthy there,” he said. 

They settled in Brussels, Belgium, where Kaufman attended a French language school. 

Kaufman’s father was a partner in a family-owned firm called Romika, which had developed new processes for sole attachment to footwear; although they reestablished Romika in Belgium after fleeing Germany, in 1938 they decided that relocation to the United States was inevitable, and in 1939 sent Heinz Rollman — a cousin who was also a partner — to begin scouting out locations.

The Nazis invaded Belgium in May 1940 when Kaufman was 10, ending his schooling and forcing the family to flee yet again. 

Meanwhile, Rollman had made contact with the Dayton Rubber Company in Dayton, Ohio, and learned that they had plans to establish another facility to service the then-booming N.C. textile industry. Rollman and executives from Dayton met in Charlotte, seeking a place with a great source of cool water, and someone referred them to Waynesville. 

In 1941, Rollman became a tenant of Dayton’s new Waynesville rubber plant, and also a customer, establishing Wellco Shoe Corporation.

Rollman’s brother Ernst escaped to the U.S. in 1943, but the Kaufmans spent the rest of the war hiding out in France under false identities, and Rolf didn’t again attend school until he was 16 and enrolled in the eleventh grade at Waynesville High School in 1946.

He did, however, educate himself in the intervening years through correspondence school and also learned much from his father, who was multilingual and spoke English with a British accent. 

“When I came here, it was relatively easy,” said Kaufman. “I wouldn’t call it a shock. I guess I was very flexible and had been kicked around quite a bit, so I settled in quickly at Waynesville.”

Waynesville accepted the Kaufmans quickly as well. When asked if he felt bullied or discriminated against because of his nationality or religion, he was emphatic. 

“Absolutely not,” he said. 

After two years at Waynesville High, Kaufman attended N.C. State where he studied chemical engineering, earning a master’s degree. He then spent a few years in the Army, and intended to earn a Ph.D. and become a teacher after completing his service. 

“I had no intent to join the family business,” he said. “But when I was in the Army, I met my wife-to-be, who is now deceased, and we got married. The family business was prospering, they felt they wanted another generation involved, so they offered me a job that was too good to turn down.” 

Kaufman worked for the firm starting in 1956 and spent his entire professional career there.  

In 1983, Kaufman’s neighbor, Dr. Clinton Border, called Kaufman to a meeting at his house. 

“I don’t believe he even told me what for,” Kaufman said. “That was the first time that he got together the original group of people and presented his idea to us.” 

Kaufman didn’t know that Border had been traveling to international folk festivals, and had taken a group from the area to one; he also didn’t know that Border had an idea to start a festival in Waynesville that was to become what is now known as Folkmoot. 

“Dr. Border was a heck of a good salesman, and a heck of a good fundraiser,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman was sold, and became part of the original board, where he’s served ever since, despite having no background in folk dance whatsoever. 

“What appealed to me, looking back, was the opportunity to bring people from all over the world to Western North Carolina. It’s very important for our young people to get to know their counterparts from other parts of the world,” he said. 

As a component of his job, Kaufman traveled internationally frequently, which helped him become involved with an organization called CIOFF – the Conseil International des Organisations  de Festivals de Folklore et d’Arts Traditionnels. 

CIOFF began in 1970 with the goal of protecting and growing folk arts and traditional cultures around the world. 

“We would meet twice a year, and on those occasions, literally all of the participants are folk festival organizers or folk dance groups,” he said. “This has been my primary route to contact participating groups.” 

The first Folkmoot was held in 1984; since then, well over 8,000 performers from more than 200 countries have been part of it, and Kaufman’s seen nearly all of them. He is the festival’s primary recruiter of international dance groups, an arduous task that requires understanding of languages and cultures, willingness to help navigate bureaucracies to obtain visas and travel documents, and the ability to cope with the unexpected. 

He declined to name any particularly extraordinary performances, instead relishing memories of the international relationships that result from the event. 

“I think in a broader way, these relationships help bring the most peaceful interchange among peoples. Conflicts continue to exist and they always will,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not a strong enough movement, I suppose, to overwhelm them. But I think you can appreciate the fact that if the members of a group from, say, Russia, come to Folkmoot, they will never be enemies of the United States. I think that’s a fairly safe assumption.”

Folkmoot did indeed succeed at drawing groups from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when there was virtually no cultural exchange between East and West. 

Today, another region lacks what Kaufman calls “productive cultural exchange.” 

CIOFF has tried to become established in the Middle East, and has met with some success, Kaufman says, even in conservative Saudi Arabia. 

“We had a group from Jordan here, and — this is interesting — they were here the same year as a group from Israel. And they got along amongst each other very well,” he said. “So it brings together people from cultures that I would say have some conflict abroad, but they’re brought together here.” 

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