Brauche: Healing Gift Still Used by Germans

Brauche was brought to North Dakota by Germans from Russia.

Stelter, Stan. “Brauche: Healing Gift Still Used by Germans.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 8B.

Among the community of Germans from Russia in North Dakota are those who are said to have a special gift of healing called “brauche.”

It has deep roots in those people’s history. It is still being carried on today in North Dakota. Some say the practice is dying out, while others say its use is gaining in some areas.

It has been credited with sometimes miraculous cures, but critics say its power is mostly in the mind of patients - people seeking simple cures to complex maladies. It is akin to the modern versions of faith healing, the critics contend.

Further clouding the mysterious practice is its confusion with “hexe,” or witchcraft, and magic, thus giving it an anti-religious identity.

Brauchers - those who practice the prayer healing - and others are adamant that brauche involves no witchcraft or magic. Brauche actually has “strong religious connotations, but critics want to make it anything but,” says Tim Kloberdanz, assistant professor of sociology at North Dakota State University. Many brauchers say, for instance, that Jesus was a braucher himself, according to Kloberdanz.

He says that, historically, the practice of brauche falls into the category of folk religion as contrasted with official religion. He also notes that in pre-Reformation times, priests practiced healing.

There also were village shamans, or medicine men; who claimed healing powers. Some were branded as witches and persecuted, underwriting the historical confusion between witchcraft and brauche.

Brauche was brought to North Dakota by those Germans who had left their homeland to seek a better life in Russia. Isolated in that strange land, they continued many traditions, including the practice of brauche, according to Kloberdanz.

Brauche served as an answer to a practical problem: the transplanted Germans found themselves short of doctors and other medical help. Villagers relied on some talented residents who, according to one historian, were “old women (who) picked the herbs and made the remedies.”

Intermingled with brauche are folk remedies and some formal training, perhaps midwifery or massage therapy, which some Germans, mostly women, received.

With the German-Russian immigration to the United States, brauche was continued in North Dakota as the new settlers again found themselves in similar circumstances - isolated and lacking formal medical help.

Today the greatest concentration of brauchers reportedly can be found in the south central section of the state because of the high concentration of German-Russian settlement there.

There are no figures on how many brauchers there are, but Kloberdanz says that, contrary to popular notions, the practice continues to be strong in some parts of the state.

In simple terms, brauche involves the use of prayers or incantations, combined with folk medicine and home remedies, to heal.

The word brauche is a euphemistic adaptation of the German verb “brauchen,” which means to use or need, notes Kloberdanz. However, brauche has come to mean - at least to those who believe in it - “helping” or “healing.”

One braucher says the word means “I believe in this healing,” according to a 1979 thesis written at the University of North Dakota by Dawn Schock.

Belief by the patient is essential to the success of brauche, many say. “You must have your faith in me,” says one braucher, a 75-year-old woman in south central North Dakota, who asked to remain anonymous. “If you have no faith, then you no heal.”

Braucher are firm believers and they claim no special powers themselves, saying that God has given them a special talent to use their knowledge.

Says one braucher, according to Schock: “I don’t have any more power than you, except I believe Jesus helps us, and that’s all.”

When a patient visits for the first time, the b[r]aucher’s usual procedure is simply to question the person on the circumstances surrounding the illness, find the area of the body that may be in pain and then make a diagnosis, based on experience or training.

Some sort of curing substance is usually used and prescribed, ranging from salves, ointments, herbs and teas to salt and cabbage leaves.

A prayer is recited in German, usually in tones so low that even the patient can’t hear it clearly. A common denominator in those prayers is calling upon the Holy Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost - to heal. The incantations usually are said three times.

According to Schock, one braucher says in treating ringworm:

“Peter and Paul went out to the land,

“They plowed three furrows and they plowed three worms.

“The first one is black, the second is white and the third is red.

“I’ll squeeze them all dead.”

The braucher ends by calling upon the Trinity.

Some brauchers reportedly may circle or blow on the affected area, such as in the case of ringworm.

Many home remedies are used. For instance, the supplement for curing skin disorders, according to one braucher, includes salve and portions of boric acid, cornstarch and baking soda.

A treatment for children suffering from stomach flu or stomach disorders, according to another braucher, is to wrap a string around the stomach area three times. The same string then is wrapped around a raw egg and the egg is thrown into a fire and stirred until burned while a verse is said.

Although others know the prayers, it is said that only the braucher can effect the cures with their use.

The usual method of passing on the knowledge is within a family or to members of the opposite sex when it’s outside the family, according to Kloberdanz. One woman in the state learned it as a youngster from her grandfather in Romania when he was 106 years old.

There is some belief that once the knowledge is passed on, the original braucher loses power.

Does brauche work?

Some German-Russians and others swear by it. A couple from south central North Dakota - who asked to remain anonymous - related how the woman was relieved in the 1940s of a malady known as wildfire, apparently some sort of skin disorder that spreads over the entire body, causing itching and inflammation. Some say it is caused by an allergy.

The woman was taken to different doctors and specialists with no relief. A local braucher was finally called. “You’ll believe when you have one thread to hang on to,” said the woman patient.

In the first session, the braucher made a cross with her hands over the woman’s body three times and prayed. “As she got up to leave, I saw what was like heat waves on a hot summer day. The heat waves followed her out of the room,” recalls the woman.

The braucher eventually “cured” the disorder entirely through praying and giving the woman flour “baths.”

Other more common treatments are for ringworm, warts, colic, colds and headaches.

However, brauchers don’t treat some cases. For instance, one braucher will treat skin cancer, according to Schock, but not internal cancer, and she says she’s never attempted any type of surgery. Brauchers often make referrals to doctors and other practitioners in cases they recognize as being out of their realm.

It’s that selectivity that some say helps explain the reported successes of brauche.

In her thesis, Schock says of one braucher she interviewed, “like any competent physician, is aware of her limitations so at the outset she handles only those cases she feels she can heal.”

There also is natural remission of diseases, which are listed as successful cures despite the fact that patients would have gotten better regardless of the treatment, some critics note.

Schock also points out that, because of brauchers’ interaction with western medicine, some “legitimate” cures are practiced. For example, she says, one braucher’s view of gout is that it is caused by a worm in a nerve, producing pain when it pinches.

In that case, the braucher tries to locate and pinch the worm while reciting:

“Das gout, go out.

“Out of the nerve and out of the vessel.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

Modern Medicine, Schock notes, attributes gout to a “salting out” of uric crystals, which can appear to be a worm in certain areas. So, a braucher’s treatment may result in breaking up the crystals and making it possible for them to be absorbed into the bloodstream, she writes.

However, it is the psychosomatic aspect of brauche that often draws the most attention by critics or, for that matter, believers. The idea is that if people believe they will get better, they probably will get better, given the right conditions.

Historically, it has been physicians and clergymen who are the most antagonistic toward brauche.

However, interviews with several central North Dakota physicians and clergymen indicated more curiosity than antagonism. That reaction is shared by Henry P. Janssen, a Linton physician.

He feels that patients have the “right, privilege and responsibility to seek any cure that will help them.”

The healing approach of brauche is basically psychological, he says, and that has been proven to work in treating physical illnesses. “It’s been shown that if a patient really believes in a doctor, even if the doctor gives the wrong treatment, they do get better,” explains Janssen.

If patients have high hopes, “it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Janssen. However, “from a pure academic science, there’s no justification why they do get better.”

A Bismarck doctor, Ralph Tarnasky , also observes, “ As a physician , I don’t think it (brauche) has scientific validity.” However, Tarnasky says, “as a kid I saw what seemed to be miraculous cures” accomplished by his grandmother, who practiced brauche.

“I wouldn’t knock it, any more than I would a chiropractor,” he says. “But I can’t endorse it scientifically.”

In the clerical area, brauche seems to be treated in a similar manner. Brauchers say they’ve not experienced any sanctions from their churches.

The Rev. G.G. Neuberger of Mohall, a Lutheran pastor of German descent who has served communities in southern and south central North Dakota, says that although he has questions about it, “I’m hesitant to condemn it wholesale.”

The Rev. Bruce Adamson, a Lutheran minister in Ashley, also says he has some problems with brauche in that people apparently may be seeking “simple answers to complicated problems.” One danger, he says, is that if a patient doesn’t like what a doctor prescribes, he may run to a faith healer.

“I’m not sure God is that easily manipulated,” he says of the faith healing approach.

But Adamson doesn’t see brauche as a threat to the church or interference in the faith. And brauche must work in some instances, such as in treating babies with colic, because some families have relied on practitioners over generations, he says.

Brauche has survived as one culture’s answer to the medical - and perhaps spiritual - needs of a people.

However, many of those interviewed who are not directly involved with brauche indicated they felt the practice is on its way out.

Not so, says Kloberdanz.

There are a number of reasons for its persistence, he says.

The healers are dealing with common ailments that continue to plague people, explains Kloberdanz. “As long as those plague us, healers will continue to be important.”

Modern doctors often don’t recognize certain ailments as existing, says Kloberdanz. “So some say they go (to a braucher) because doctors don’t recognize (their ailment) as a disease,” he says.

He says brauche also is important as a strong cultural symbol to Germans from Russia . “But it’s an insider’s symbol; not many outsiders know about it,” he says, and the people want to keep it that way.

“What I find in talking to Germans from Russia is that when they say, ‘I believe in brauche,’ what they mean is ‘I’m a strong (German from Russia),’ contends Kloberdanz.

Brauche is a positive part of the culture, says Karen Retzlaff of Aneta, state president of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society. She notes that because of circumstances, people came to rely on those who were said to have the healing gift.

The healers’ approach also is akin to the holistic method now becoming popular, she says.

Kloberdanz agrees, saying there is growing support for treating the body as a whole, rather than as a machine.

Also, he says, research indicates “there is physiologically something to a placebo, it’s not just in the mind.” In other words, something is triggered in the body when the mind is convinced that the treatment being given will help.

Will brauche continue? Yes, says an old braucher, and perhaps her assessment of her faith will help to explain why.

“I believe strongly in God, and I believe in helping. God is not against brauche.”

Tim Kloberdanz

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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