Seeing with Hands and Heart

By Cuong Ted Nguyen

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    What Fritz Bollbach can’t see with his eyes, he can see with his hands. Eighty-three-year-old Brother Bollbach lost his sight some twenty-seven years ago. But blindness hasn’t kept him from practicing his vocation as a carpenter or from developing his skills as a woodcarver.

    In 1957, he lost the sight of his right eye during cataract surgery. “I wasn’t saddened by the loss because I could still continue to work,” he recalls.

    Then, in 1966, he slipped while working and hit his head. Within seconds, Brother Bollbach lost sight in his left eye. “My world fell apart,” he says. “The darkness was awful.”

    Out of Darkness

    For a time, Brother Bollbach also lost sight of spiritual things. From the day he was baptized in 1921 in his native Germany, he had focused his life on the gospel. But after the accident, “I could not and did not want to pray,” he sadly recalls. “Even when my wife, Elli, continued to ask me to pray with her, I refused and bitterly asked, ‘Shall I thank God that I am blind?’”

    He remained in spiritual darkness until one morning, about two weeks after the accident. Each morning before leaving for work, Elli had prayed alone—while Brother Bollbach stayed in bed. Then one morning after her prayer, as Sister Bollbach bent down to give Fritz a kiss, her tears fell on his face. He was moved by her tenderness. “When I heard her drive off, I knelt on my bed,” he says. “But I couldn’t pray.”

    Brother Bollbach remained on his knees for several hours. He tried to speak again and again. But each time, something in him fought against his desire to pray. After much effort, he finally began praying to God again. “A feeling of thanksgiving filled my soul,” he recalls. “I remembered how many blessings I had and how many times Heavenly Father had protected my life. I was at peace.”

    Since then, Brother Bollbach has used faith, prayer, obedience, and diligence to triumph over his challenges. “I could not see with my eyes, but God helped me see with my hands and with my heart,” he comments.

    An Artist’s Hands

    Before losing his sight, Brother Bollbach used his skills as a carpenter to build houses for German Latter-day Saints made homeless by World War II. He also helped construct Church meetinghouses. In 1956, the Bollbachs moved to Utah and seven years later became U.S. citizens.

    In 1966, challenged with the loss of his sight, Brother Bollbach decided to expand his carpentry skills and to learn woodcarving. He also wanted to help others facing challenges similar to his own. “I made a goal to help the helpless and discouraged people,” he states. “I wanted to show that disabled people could still work and succeed.” A few weeks later, he registered at a school for the blind in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    Gordon Clegg, supervisor at the school, says he has taught hundreds of blind people how to carve wood. But Fritz Bollbach, he says, had a special talent. “All I did was build his confidence,” Brother Clegg comments. “He was cautious at first about working with machinery, as most people would be if they were blind.”

    Although it was dangerous, Brother Bollbach relied on his fingers to feel the shape and texture of the wood as he chiseled away. Even after breaking one piece of wood after another, he refused to give up. “After weeks of breaking wood, I finally finished a little chess piece,” Brother Bollbach remembers. “A month later, carving without sight, I made a chessboard and a chess table.” On his graduation day, he presented the chess set to the school. Brother Clegg then entered the set in a state fair competition. It won a first-place ribbon.

    Brother Bollbach’s new skills gave him the confidence to start on his next goal—helping others like himself succeed. With the help of government funding, Brother Bollbach set up a workshop to teach woodcarving to people with visual impairments. He had many wonderful experiences in the workshop. One in particular stands out in his memory. It was two weeks before Christmas, and he was alone. Brother Bollbach was carving a special present for his wife—the model of an elk. He finished the elk’s body and thin legs with ease, but carving the eyes seemed impossible.

    “I decided to stand up,” he says. “As I walked around the workshop, I began to sing my favorite hymn, ‘I Need Thee Every Hour.’ I prayed to God out loud for help, and again I sang.” After singing for more than an hour, Brother Bollbach picked up the knife and wood. But he still couldn’t carve the eyes. “What should I do? Shall I give up?” he asked himself. “No, Fritz, don’t give up. Try it again,” he told himself. However, he still could not hold the knife steady enough to carve the eyes. He stood up again and walked around for another hour.

    “I sang, I cried, and I prayed for some time,” he recalls. “I thought of the many blessings the Lord had given me. I then took the knife again, and with my hands shaking, I carved the eyes and within minutes finished the whole head.”

    Brother Bollbach says he no longer has problems carving. He proudly points to numerous figures he has made with his calloused yet gentle hands—various animals, chess sets, cabinets, and tables. “I often sat in my workshop early in the morning and late at night to carve,” he says. Only one year after he struggled to carve an elk, an art gallery in Salt Lake City featured his remarkably detailed work.

    The Bollbachs extended a special invitation to Church President Harold B. Lee to visit the gallery. Instead, President Lee invited the Bollbachs to visit him at his office. Brother Bollbach fondly recalls the visit. He had created a wood carving of a wild horse jumping over a log to give to President Lee.

    “We stood in his office,” Brother Bollbach remembers, “and after a short visit, he shook our hands. As I was leaving, he said to me, ‘I give you my blessing. Peace will be with you.’ I have never lost the peace President Lee promised me. I have always felt it in my heart to this day.”

    That peace, won through years of hard work and persistence, reveals itself in Brother Bollbach’s deep-green eyes. Although his face shows the wrinkles of time and his big build has grown fragile from years of labor, his spirit remains strong. His testimony rests solidly on a foundation built by sacrifice and Church service.

    Missions to Germany

    Much of Brother Bollbach’s service has been as a missionary in the land of his birth. In 1969, six weeks after Fritz had opened the workshop, Fritz and Elli’s bishop called them into his office and asked them a question. The bishop had to repeat the question three times: “Fritz, the Lord wants you and your wife to serve together in the mission field. What do you think about that?”

    “I was shocked,” Brother Bollbach remembers. “I could say nothing.”

    Unable to answer the bishop’s question, he asked Elli, “Well, Mama, what do you think?”

    She glanced at Fritz and said, “The decision is yours. I will be your eyes.”

    He turned back to the bishop and replied, “Bishop, we will go where the Lord wants us to go.”

    The Bollbachs were soon serving in the Germany Central Mission. Their main responsibility was to help bring people back to church. “Many of them did not want to pray because they said they had nothing to be grateful for or they just didn’t need anything,” Sister Bollbach explains. “However, Fritz inspired them and helped them to be grateful for life and for God’s blessings.”

    One of his first assignments was to serve as branch president in Gelsenkirchen. At first Brother Bollbach was hesitant when the mission president called him to the position. “But you know that I’m blind,” Brother Bollbach told him.

    “Yes, of course I know that,” the mission president replied. “God knows it as well.”

    Brother Bollbach labored as branch president there until he had a mild heart attack a year later. “I wondered if I should go home after that,” he recalls. “But the doctor examined me and said it was all right for me to stay. So we stayed.”

    After they returned from the mission field in 1971, Elli went back to working in the Salt Lake Temple, and Fritz reopened the workshop and put his wood pieces on display. As people flocked to see Brother Bollbach’s carvings, many thought it impossible that a blind man had done such splendid work. “Unbelievable, but not impossible,” he told them. “You must have faith in the Lord and confidence in yourself. All people—no matter what race or creed—are children of God and brought talents with them to earth. It depends upon the individual to discover and realize those talents through diligent effort.”

    In 1975, the Bollbachs were surprised by another mission call, this time to the Germany Frankfurt Mission. About the same time, Elli discovered she had cancer. “No one can imagine the fear we felt,” Fritz explains. “Within one week, she underwent three operations. The curious thing was the blessing the bishop gave her. He said to her, ‘Elli, you will recover, and you will again go into the mission field with Fritz to serve God.’ We wondered how he could say such a thing.”

    Sister Bollbach recuperated from the operations, and they served an eighteen-month mission in Pirmasens, Germany, near the French border.

    Less than a year after returning home, the Bollbachs locked up their house and workshop a third time to serve in the Germany Munich Mission, where Brother Bollbach was called to be branch president in Nürnberg. Although the branch had more than 450 people on its records, only about 20 members attended regularly.

    The Bollbachs knew they had challenges, but they also knew how to overcome them. With faith, prayer, obedience, and diligence, they concentrated on visiting less-active members. “A miracle happened,” Brother Bollbach exclaims. “The branch grew. Several months later, the branch was divided into three branches—Feucht, Fürth, and Nürnberg. I know it was the blessing and help of God. We were just the instruments in his hands.”

    For God and Learning

    After coming home, the Bollbachs served as Sunday School teachers for about ten years. Because Fritz could not read the lessons, Elli recorded the lesson manual and passages of scripture onto a tape. Fritz would then listen to the tape several times and would study with Elli for up to eight hours. “I searched out the questions and had them put on tape,” he says. “Then I learned them by heart so we could teach the class together.” They finally were released when Brother Bollbach became too sick to continue the weekly assignment.

    The Bollbachs say all their Church assignments have made them happy. “We used our time only for the Church and for God and for learning,” Brother Bollbach comments, “and we were glad. But it was not ourselves, but the power of prayer and the help of God that allowed us to do the work. Without God and Elli, I could not have made it. Without His help, I could not see spiritually with my heart.”

    Photography by Jed Clark