The Father of Krav Maga

The Fellowship  |  January 9, 2020

Hungarian Martial Artist, Imi Lichtenfeld teaching a man

Wrestling Champion

Imi Lichtenfeld would come to be known as Israel’s expert on the art of self defense and the creator of Krav Maga. But his interest began early, as his father was both a policeman and a circus performer in Slovakia.

The Jewish boy trained at his father’s gym , learning self-defense and finding great success as a boxer, wrestler, and gymnast. A member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team, Imi often won gold. He won the youth championship in 1928, and the adult championship the next year. He also won the national boxing championship and an international championship in gymnastics.

But when anti-Semitic riots broke out in Bratislava in the late-1930s — as the Nazis’ anti-Semitism swept Europe — Imi’s skills went from recreational to required.

He helped defend his Jewish neighborhood from the rampaging racist gangs. But as Imi battled the hateful thugs, he realized that his training in wrestling and boxing had little to do with real-life combat. So he began to develop techniques for self-defense in actual situations.

Imi visited the Holy Land in 1935 with a team of Jewish wrestlers. But once there, he could not compete, having broken a rib in practice. This led to one of Imi’s fundamental rules: do not get hurt while training.

Persecuted Jew

Returning home to Europe from the Holy Land only to find that the anti-Semitic violence had grown worse, Imi gained more experience protecting his community.

These real-life experiences led to more fundamental truths that Imi would preach later on: the use of natural movements and reactions when defending, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack. And they led to his principle of “simultaneous defense and attack” and “never occupying two hands in the same defensive movement.”

Holy Land Defender

When the Nazis occupied his homeland in 1940, Imi made aliyah (immigrated) aboard a boat that was shipwrecked on the Aegean Sea. He at last reached the Holy Land in 1942, where his fighting ability was recognized by the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF).

In 1944, Imi began training Israeli fighters in his many areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, knife use, and defense against knife attacks.

In 1948, Israel won its independence and the IDF was formed. Imi was named Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF’s School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for two decades, developing and perfecting his Krav Maga system (Hebrew for “contact combat”).

After retiring from the IDF, Imi adapted his method for civilian use. Today Krav Maga is a revolutionary and effective system for defending oneself from all manner of attacks, on the battlefield or on the street. Having saved countless lives of both soldiers and civilians, Imi Lichtenfeld passed away in 1998 at the age of 87, a truly heroic Israeli we should all know.

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