Looking Back: How a Blind Wood Carver Showed Me Courage in Adversity
Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor
One of the earliest stories I wrote for the Church News remains one of the most vivid in my memory. It was about a blind wood carver who gave me a glimpse of courage in adversity and hope during trials. I wrote about him for the January 30, 1972, issue of the paper.
Fritz E. Bollbach was born in East Prussia in 1910. He was baptized a member of the Church in 1921. He was sent to a Nazi labor camp before World War II began. After his release, he married Elli Gertrude Worch in 1935. During the war, he repaired weapons and machinery for the German army; he was captured by British forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp in 1945. In the fall of 1946, he was released to West Germany and reunited with his family.
He worked with others to build homes for refugees from East Germany. He served as president of the branch in Langen from 1954 to 1956. The Bollbachs’ 13-year-old daughter, Sigrid, was killed in an accident during that time. He and his wife and their two other daughters, Ursula and Hannelore, immigrated to the United States in 1956; they became U.S. citizens in 1993.
After he lost sight in his right eye in 1957, he had a hard time finding work. “In three years I worked on more than 25 jobs,” he said. “Each morning when my wife left home for work at 5 a.m., I would kneel and pray. I often cried to my Heavenly Father. I never gave up on prayer, although I did not seem to get an answer.”
He said he had a certain wonderful, happy feeling after he prayed on Thanksgiving Day in 1960. “I could hardly wait for my wife to come home,” he said. When she did, he asked her to look in the newspaper ads for a piece of ground for sale. “She told me we were not able to pay the gas bill, let alone pay for a piece of ground. I told her nothing is impossible when we believe.” The owner of the land they found asked how much Bollbach could pay down. “I told him, ‘Nothing.’ I did not have any money.” An arrangement was made for Bollbach to pay over time.
“The Lord blessed us so much we paid for the property within three years.”
With limited vision, he started building a nursing home. After he finished the framework, he suddenly became totally blind when he struck his left temple on a sharp edge while stooping over to pick up a piece of wood. Nerve damage caused total blindness in his “good eye.”
No one would loan him the money he needed to finish the nursing home. In desperation, he enrolled at the Utah Blind Center for training. After he completed the course work there, the government gave him a loan to finish the building, which he turned into apartments with a workshop in the back.
“I decided I wanted to help other blind and handicapped people, so I became a tutor,” he said.
In August 1969, the Bollbachs were called to the Central German Mission, where he served briefly as president of branches in Gelsenkirchen and Aachen. After he had a heart attack, he received a blessing from the mission president, Walther H. Kindt, and Elder Hartman Rector Jr. and was able to continue in his assignments.
“The Lord blessed us with health and strength, and He opened my mind,” Bollbach said. “I was able to remember so many scriptures. I wished I had learned more before I went blind.”
After the Bollbachs returned home, he resumed working on his goal to help other people. However, things didn’t always go smoothly for him.
“I remember one day I was sitting on the table in my workshop where I had been carving an elk,” he said. “When I started to work on the head it seemed like it was impossible. I was very discouraged. I never started working without prayer, so I prayed. I tried to carve the eyes, but it was impossible.
“I cried and prayed. … I walked around in my workshop and started to sing, thinking it would give me courage and cheer me up. I sang ‘I Need Thee Every Hour.’ I prayed and sang out loud to my Heavenly Father, asking for help. I started to sing ‘Lead, Kindly Light.’ I guess I sang and prayed for about an hour.”
“I went back to the carving table and took the knife, but I still couldn’t carve the eyes. I couldn’t make the knife go in the right direction. I put the elk and knife on the table and started to cry again. I walked around and cried and prayed some more.
“I finally decided to try to carve again. This time, I carved the eyes within a couple of minutes. I had the feeling that I could see what I did. When I was through carving the eyes, I touched the elk over and over. I was so happy. I cried again. This time, it was for joy and thanksgiving.”