Hands: Ruth's Story of Healing
By Ruth Weil Kusler
with Peggy Sailer O'Neil
Published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North
Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, ND, 1998, softcover.
Book review by Carol Just Halverson, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
"The time is coming when I can't do it anymore, and you have to
take over." Such is the legacy as healing arts are passed from one
practitioner to another. For Ruth Weil Kusler, these words from
her mother, Katherine, left no choice but to continue the healing
gift that began generations before her in her ancestral German villages
in South Russia.
Caution: This memoir will not be fully understood by readers skeptical
of the healing power of Brauche, the ages old religious healing
practice of the Germans from Russia. None-the-less, Brauche, an
important player in German-Russian folk tradition, deserves respectful
Tender Hands begins with a brief history of Ruth's maternal
family in the German village of Neu Glueckstal, located in the Black
Sea region of what is now Ukraine. It chronicles their journey to
Nebraska, South Dakota and finally settlement in Western North Dakota.
A powerful element in Ruth's family tradition was a religiosity
that included the belief that a healer or "braucher" is a chosen
instrument of God. An ironic twist is the story that her mother
Katherine, a practicing Braucher, was harassed by religious leaders
but respected and referred to by local physicians on the plains
of North Dakota.
The second half of this memoir includes remedies passed down to
Ruth. Crediting her mother, Katherine, as "my counselor -- physically,
mentally and spiritually," Ruth shares healing options for over
75 ailments, all the while stressing the importance of and offering
examples of prayers to use with the remedies.
This little book is a cross between reading through pamphlets
at a modern health food store and bumping into Great Aunt Rose's
diary. I found the occasional explanations of why something works
very interesting as was the little slap on the wrist as Ruth, the
practitioner, pointed out the connection between diet and ailments
like gall stones and fluid retention.
Many of the products needed for healing reflect agrarian life
earlier in this century. Wormwood, horseradish, fresh chamomile
and fresh sweet cream might be harder to find today. Knorr's Genuine
Hein Fong Essence (Green Drops), Dr. Forni's Alpen-Kraeuter and
Smith's Rosebud Salve will require a search, but likely can be found
through a health food source.
Some remedies were comforting by their very description. Others
I remembered with a shudder from my own childhood. All were interesting
to read and wonder about.
Western medicine is readily available as we turn the corner on
a new century, but modern physicians still "practice" medicine.
Ruth and practitioners like her have healed and comforted generations
of souls on the Steppes of Russia, and Dakota Prairie, all the while
giving credit to a higher power. It's hard to argue with that kind
I intend to keep Ruth's remedy book handy as a connection to my
pioneer past and the healing men and women of my heritage. I also
plan to track some Green Drops for my medicine cabinet.
Book review by Dr. Roland M. Wagner, California State University,
Ruth Weil Kusler's life-long journey in the healing arts began
with her mother, Katharina Fischer, who was a midwife and healer
in Neu Glückstal, Odessa district. Sensing that her daughter Ruth
also had the gift of "tender hands," the instinctive ability to
seek out aches and pains and to soothe them away with her fingers,
Katharina passed on the ancient healing methods of prayer, massage,
and herbal remedies to her daughter. As I write these words Ruth
is approaching her 90th year, and she has spent most of her life
carrying on her mother's practice, caring for the sick near Beulah,
North Dakota. Her well-earned reputation continues to draw people
seeking her advice and treatment.
A lifetime's worth of experience in the healing arts has been
condensed into this small booklet (69 pages). The many remedies
for the aches and pains of daily life are valuable in and of themselves,
but the book also has special interest because of its information
on the German folk-healing tradition known as "Braucherei." Ruth's
practice is an intriguing case study of how these old traditions
have continued to evolve and to adapt to changing circumstances
by assimilating other alternative healing traditions.
Ruth's story may strike a note of familiarity to many people who
are aware of folk healing traditions around the world. Many are
aware, for example, that Mexican-Americans have a similar form of
healing known as "curanderismo," which involves the use prayers,
blessed candles and oils, holy water, and herbal remedies. Likewise,
"santeria," a healing religion born of African traditions, still
flourishes throughout the Caribbean. It is less commonly recognized
that similar beliefs and practices exist in European folk cultures
as well. In modern technological medicine the spiritual and physical
worlds are rigidly separated, but in folk medicine these dimensions
of experience are inextricably linked.
Braucherei is an ancient tradition of folk-healing practiced by
German speaking peoples, with roots extending back into pre-Christian
times. It builds upon a bedrock of beliefs and practices that are
similar in folk societies throughout most of the world (note, for
example, the etymological similarity to the word "brujeria" in Spanish).
During the Middle Ages the ancient Germanic healing lore combined
with Christianity, an uneasy amalgamation that was always subject
to suspicion and scrutiny by Christian clergy. As Ruth notes, the
Braucherei chants "worried the local ministers," and some believed
that the healing procedures were "witchcraft."
Folk healing traditions, such as Braucherei, should not be dismissed
as mere superstition, or as a static body of folklore that has been
passed down unchanged from one generation to the next. Certainly
there are elements of "sympathetic magic" involved in the ritualism,
as commonly described by anthropologists, but the practices also
build upon wisdom about holistic medicine accumulated by generations
of sharp-eyed pragmatic observers. Braucherei has been a living
tradition, and the practice has continued to evolve over time, adopting
and absorbing methods and remedies and adjusting to current belief
Ruth's practice of Braucherei, as described in her book, demonstrates
this pragmatic openness to the adoption of new healing methods.
She cites specific prayers for certain ailments, which recalls the
more traditional aspects of Braucherei, but these prayers are not
emphasized as a major aspect of her practice as described in this
book. Most of her remedies involve the use of well-known healing
herbs, such as garlic or chamomile. It is also notable that many
non-traditional products are utilized, such as "Knorr's Genuine
Hein Fong Essence (green drops)," "Dr. Forni's Alpen-Kreuter," "Smith's
Rosebud Salve,"Aspirin tablets," "Clorox bleach," "Epsom salts,"
"Niacin," and "Vitamin C." Fruits juices are a prominent ingredient
in the remedies, but whiskey and Schnapps as well. Ruth's practice
of massage has been expanded over the years by the study of bone-setting
and reflexology (derived from Oriental folk-medicine, a practice
more commonly known as accupressure, described by Ruth as "massaging
points on the palms of hands and soles of feet to strengthen and
stimulate glands and organ systems"). Interestingly, Ruth notes
that a family member, a grand-nephew, is studying at the Palmer
School of Chiropractic, which she regards as a continuation of the
family healing tradition. At a broader level, Ruth's story is not
just of her own practice, but also of the adaptations and modifications
in folk healing traditions throughout the world.