Born in 1910 in Budapest, Hungary, Imrich “Imi” Lichtenfeld (Sde-Or) grew up in Bratislava, Czechloslavakia. To get the true background and feel for Imi (and krav-maga) you actually have to go back a generation to Imi’s father. As a youngster of 13, Imi’s father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, joined a professional circus troupe, where he excelled in both wrestling and boxing. For Samuel, the circus was a school where he received extensive knowledge and training in fitness, weight lifting, wrestling, boxing, and mixed-skill fighting. Samuel founded and ran the wrestling club and gym “Hercules,” where he trained Imi and other young competitive athletes. Imi rapidly distinguished himself as a champion in swimming, judo, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and ballroom dancing, among other athletic pursuits.
In 1935 Imi visited Palestine with a team of Jewish wrestlers to compete in the Jewish Maccabi sports convention. Unfortunately, Imi fractured a rib during a training accident and could not compete. This accident led to Imi’s fundamental training principle emphasized in his own words: “don’t get hurt.” Imi quickly concluded that only real necessity justifies a “win at all costs” approach. These two tenets eventually fused to create Imi’s Krav Maga training approach. Imi returned to Czechoslovakia to face increasing anti-Semitic violence. As Nazi hatred infected Slovakia, Jews were increasingly victims of near constant violence. To protect the Jewish community from marauding fascists and anti-Semites, Imi organized a group of young Jews to protect his community. On the streets, Imi quickly learned the vital differences between sport martial arts competition and street fighting. While serving on the front lines to protect his community, Imi began to combine natural movements and reactions with immediate and decisive counterattacks. Here, on the streets, fighting for survival was where a lot of the techniques and philosophy of Krav Maga were developed.
These community self-defense activities made Imi a wanted man by the fascist Nazi occupational authorities. Nazi intolerance soon quickly reached a crescendo as the Germans began their systematic extermination of European Jewry. In May 1940, the Beitar Zionist Youth movement invited Imi to join them on the riverboat, Pentcho, bound for Palestine. This turned out to be the last immigrant ship that succeeded in escaping the Nazi’s clutches.
Israel’s early leaders recognized Imi’s fighting abilities, innovation, and his ability to impart this training to others. Imi began training the Palmach (elite fighting units), the Palyam (marine fighting units), and the Hagana, which would merge into the modern-day Zahal or Israeli Defense Force as well as groups of police officers. This training included fighting fitness, obstacle training, bayonet tactics, sentry removal, knife fighting, stave/stick fighting and any other military-oriented problems that required a creative solution.
In 1948 Imi became the principal authority in close-quarters-combat for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Imi became the Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav-Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness as well. He was in charge of training a disparate group of soldiers of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, many of whom did not speak the same language. He needed to develop a self-defense system that would work for not only spry eighteen-year-olds and elite fighting troops in prime physical condition, but also for middle-aged and graying reserve soldiers. He needed a system that soldiers could learn quickly, during their 3-week-long basic training. Finally, he needed a system that worked, one that soldiers could apply to any situation at any time intuitively and without hesitation. He succeeded.
A Fighting System that Works for All
Until the World War II era, traditional self-defense techniques left soldiers ill prepared to defend against armed attackers. As the fledging Israeli state formed, Imi knew its soldiers needed to learn a type of close-quarters combat that could protect them against firearms, explosives, and other modern threats. Thus, Krav Maga–the world’s most effective close quarters combat system–was born.
As he developed the method, Imi worked tirelessly to ensure Krav Maga success was not dependent on a practitioner’s strength or expertise in any one combative including punching, kicking, grappling or throwing. He took all aspects of a fight, both armed and unarmed, into account. Imi melded his knowledge of the many sports-based fighting disciplines he knew together and created the complete fighting system now known as Krav Maga.
Merging Self-Defense with Close Quarters Combat
Until the advent of Krav Maga, self-defense and close-quarters combat were thought of as two distinct methodologies. Self-defense usually included situations in which a defender was unaware of an impending attack. In close-quarters-combat, two opponents are aware of the other’s respective movements and perceived violent intent. Krav Maga fuses the two disciplines into one fighting system, giving the trainee the tools needed to defend oneself both when taken by surprise as well as when one is well aware of your opponent. In Krav Maga, you’ll learn to quickly react under any situation. A trainee learns to both neutralize an attacker as well as develop a fight strategy that may include defensive posturing, and movements, coordinated attacks and counter-attacks, and overall tactics.
For the next two decades, Imi served as Chief Physical Fitness and Krav Maga Instructor for the Israeli Defense Forces. The vast knowledge acquired through Krav Maga training prompted the military authorities to recognize Krav Maga as a distinct self-defense-close-quarters-combat system. Later, the Israeli Ministry of Educating also granted Krav Maga state recognition for training in public schools.
From Soldiers to Civilians
Imi’s teaching skills were often sought abroad. His lessons extended beyond just self-defense-close-quarters-combat training to emphasize character and moral training. For example, in 1960, when instructing a Royal Police Guard unit in Ethiopia, Imi realized during a bayonet defensive tactics lesson that several trainees had attempted not to learn with him, but to actually bayonet him. At the next training session, Imi rectified this uncooperative attitude by sprawling his attacker with a full force kick, halting any further “tests.” This incident prompted Imi to reinforce proper student attitude: “be humble.” Proving oneself is not necessary. Humility and respect are essential. In 1964, after retiring as Chief Instructor, Imi began to adapt his system for use in the civilian world.
Imi focused both on teaching professionals (law enforcement, executive protection and security specialists) and adapting his system to provide ordinary civilians – men, women, boys and girls – with solutions to avoid and/or end a violent encounter. In 1978, Imi, along with his senior students including Mr. Avi Moyal – IKMF Chairman (whom he appointed as the Chairman) established the Ha Agudah L’Krav Maga Yisraeli or the Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA) in his hometown, Netanya, to promote Krav Maga throughout Israel.
Even during his last years, Imi continued to personally supervise the training of those who have attained high ranks in Krav Maga, and to spend time with the instructors in Israel and abroad.
As time passed, Imi recognized the need for an organization whose primary focus was spreading Krav Maga not primarily in Israel but around the globe and so, at his direction and with his blessing, the International Krav Maga Federation was established. Mr. Avi Moyal is at the helm as the Chairman continuing to steer the IKMF in the original vision and direction of Imrich “Imi” Lichtenfeld (Sde-Or).
On January 9th, 1998, early in the morning, Imrich “Imi” Lichtenfeld (Sde-Or) passed away, but his legacy and vision live on strong… IKMF Krav Maga