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Rolf Kaufman reflects 
on Folkmoot USA

“Dr. Border was a neighbor of mine. He called me one day in 1983 and asked me to come to his house for a meeting but didn’t tell me what it was all about.”

That is the very first memory Rolf Kaufman, a member of the founding board of Folkmoot, had of what would become Folkmoot USA, the International Festival of North Carolina. 

As it turns out, Dr. Border had been traveling to folk festivals for 10 years by 1983. One of Borders’ patients had been the director of a local dance group. The patient said he would be traveling to England for a folk festival, and though Border told the patient he wasn’t well enough for that kind of travel, the director said it didn’t matter, he was going anyway. So, Kaufman said, Border decided he would just go with them. 

“He got bit by the international folk dance fever, which I later on caught,” Kaufman said. 

After that meeting at his neighbor’s house, the first board of directors of Folkmoot USA was formed. Kaufman said that when they had the meeting, Border had already done most of the preparatory work with the state and the county, that he was driven by a passion from what he’d seen and experienced over the course of 10 years of attending folk festivals. 

“What drew me in was the fact that I felt that our local population, especially the younger generation, were not sufficiently aware of the world around us. Our young people were not focused on the world around us and I felt that they needed to be broadened,” said Kaufman. 

Rolf Kaufman is an immigrant. He was born in Germany and “inherited the Jewish faith, though not religious” as he puts it. 

His family was being persecuted by German Nazis in the 1930s. They left Germany in 1933 when Kaufman was not yet 4 years old. 

“We were chased about by Nazis,” said Kaufman. 

The family settled in Belgium, then had to flee from there. Caught in the war in Europe they ended up in hiding in France, using false identities, until arriving in the United States in 1945. 

It is easy to understand why Kaufman was interested in broadening the outlook of local young people. 

That first festival in 1983 was housed in the old school building that is now part of Waynesville Middle School. From that point on the festival grew, gaining traction and recognition. The festival is a member of CIOFF, the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts. 

Kaufman says his favorite aspect of being a part of the festival was the opportunity he got to travel. In 1996 Kaufman retired from full-time work. For 20 years straight, from 1996 until 2016, Kaufman attended the world congress of CIOFF every year. The CIOFF congresses were the place to build contacts in the folk festival world. From 1996 onward those contacts became the primary way of recruiting groups to attend Folkmoot USA. 

In 2016, the congress took place in Italy. By this time Kaufman had become handicapped. 

“It was a small town, but it was big enough,” said Kaufman. “There was a distance to travel every day to go to meetings and so forth and they had to push me around in a wheelchair. And that’s when I decided I wasn’t going to be able to continue doing that. So, 2016 was the last one I went to, and it was the first one Angie went to.” 

Folkmoot executive director Angie Schwab took over his group of contacts and continued to add to it. Official contacts aren’t the only ones made at Folkmoot. Stories abound of newfound understanding, lifelong friendships and even marriages from people meeting at the festival. 

“In many ways it has taught me that we all have a lot in common. That our younger generation certainly can get together and get along in a great way, under circumstances such as a festival,” said Kaufman. “We’ve never had any serious friction at the festival.”

During the Cold War era groups from the Soviet Union even came and performed at the festival. Kaufman said that despite the icy political relations, there were no problems in personal relations once the groups arrived in Waynesville. 

“It’s a great way of bringing people together,” said Kaufman. “I think one of the best ways to minimize future clashes between nations is to recognize the international cultural heritage.”

Over the years Kaufman has been a major individual contributor to the festival, not only with money, but time too. Though programming has been canceled for the rest of this year, Kaufman hopes to see the international festival return in 2022. He says he will fiercely back any effort to keep the festival alive, to keep the public aware of its existence. 

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