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Krav Maga, From Treachery to Triumph, a story of Imi Lichtenfeld (part I)

Krav Maga, From Treachery to Triumph, a story of Imi Lichtenfeld (part I)

If Budapest ever had a "golden age", then unknown to her she was a city breathing in its last few moments. In 1910 despite her Jewish ghettos, Budapest had reached her zenith. She was at her seminal moment in history. But in just four short years, everything would end with a bang.

It was here, into the forefront of this fractured era, on May 26 2010, that Imi Sde-Or, Imrich Lichtenfeld, most commonly known as Imi Lichtenfeld, was thrown. His life, foreshadowed by a treachery, locked in repetition.

Samuel Lichtenfeld

The roots of the man who would create Krav Maga, first found fertile soil within the father, not the son. At 13 years of age lured by the lights and marvels of the circus Samuel Lichtenfeld, Imi Lichenfeld's father was drawn like a flame to a moth. By the time he had become an accomplished circus performer Samuel had acquired an extensive repertoire of skills. Skills that included fitness training, weight lifting, wrestling, boxing, and mixed-skill fighting, an unrelated ancestor of today's MMA. Skills that would later jumpstart Imi's destiny.

A short time after Imi's birth, Samuel moved the family to Slovakia's capital city, Bratislava. Here the accomplished Samuel, a Jew, served with the Bratislava Police Force as a Chief Inspector. He lead the force in arrests. Supported by his experiences in the circus, Samuel also created "Hercules", a gymnasium where many athletics were taught, including self-defense. Infused with his father's penchants and intentions, Imi found himself involved in a variety of sports.

With the cold winter of 1918, for the second time Imi's world changed. WWI came to an end, and with it the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Bratislava staggered as it repositioned itself under the instability of a newly founded Czechoslovakia. Imi saw his small world submerge into turmoil. An 8 year boy shattered as he watched his city grow dark, and preying upon its own people. Around him his ears hushed talk and emotional testimony. His eyes bore witness to acts of violence targeted against an innocent people, simply because of their faith.

In the early months of 1919 the Hungarian administrators and military left the city. Violence against her Jews receded as Bratislava solidified her control. Once again a city refreshed, she fostered a Jewish Center, a home to the Administrative Offices of the Slovakian Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Communities on a national level.

In spite of this, the violence of real life conflicts had already left their signature. They fueled Imi's involvement in the fighting sports, they fostered his successes, not only as a boxer, but also as a wrestler and as a gymnast. He competed nationally and internationally, winning numerous championships in a variety of events. But it was Imi's accomplishments in boxing and wrestling that were exceptional.

In 1928, at 18, he won the Slovak Youth Wrestling Championship. Then the middle weight adult divisions championships, the national boxing championship, and an international gymnastics championship in 1929, and it continued. Between the years of 1929 and 1939, Imi proved himself as one of Europe's most successful wrestlers.

However peace was never to last long. In the mid 1930's, Imi saw anti-Semitic riots re-emerge to again threaten Bratislava's Jewish population. Cruel reality was going to teach this young Lichtenfeld another cold lesson about the difference between competitive fighting and true violence. And Imi was a fast learner. He quickly to deduced that a sports approach held no practicality for the brutalities he found in the street.

Set face to face with the realities before him, Imi responded by analytically reprocessing his skills and concepts of fighting. From these ashes he bore evolved strategies with which he could effectively dominate life threatening situations and terminate any attacker's capability to fight. His principle, "Combine a defense based on natural movements and reactions, with immediate and decisive counterattacks", was one of his primary evolutions.

During the 1935 Jewish Maccabi Sports Convention in Palestine, Imi broke a rib training and was forced to concede. Learning from the competition he resolved that only real necessity justifies the "win at all costs" mindset. This experience became another principle, stated simply as "Don't get hurt". Together these principles forged what would become the Krav Maga approach to training.

In 1936's Imi witnessed Germany's adoption of the infamous Nuremburg Laws. Treacherous and terrifying laws were as they legally disentitled Jews of the protections afforded other German citizens, entrenched their recognition as inferior humans, and once again incited open attacks against them. For a Jew the terror of being openly attacked no longer resided in shadowed chance, now it was out in the open, a reality rapidly spreading across the metropolises of Eastern Europe.

In October 1938, anti-Jewish violence jumped. Imi found himself adrift in the crossfire of international politics, racism, war, and hate; and he was on the losing end of each. Nationalists and pro-Nazi German youth launched orchestrated reprisals against the Jews of Bratislava. Violence again reigned on Imi's streets. It was at this time that Imi fully surrendered himself to his calling; to be a protectorate of a innocent people who one day would bear the mark of the Star of David.

Imi Lichtenfeld now a leader by necessity, fielded 100 or so young Jewish men. Boxers and wrestlers each, they took to the streets. Supported by no-one, they engaged in numerous altercations. Some 100 deterrents, they defended Jewish individuals and neighborhoods from growing numbers of anti-Semitic attacks. At the cost of some, they slowed the onslaught of full on anti-Semites pogroms in the Jewish Quarter.

On March 14, 1939, Bratislava was declared the capital of the first independent Slovak Republic. With its 42% German population, the new state quickly fell under a deep Nazi influence. Imi was 29, he was experienced. More than once he had seen a rise and fall of violent anti-Semitic insurrection, but this time,.. this time it was different. This time, it was to be genocide!

Compressed into the years of 1941 to 1945, as Europe ramped up to WWII, the new Slovak government was in full cooperation with Hitler's Final Solution. They confiscated Jewish business, burned stores and shops, and stole personal property. Approximately 15,000 Jewish Bratislavians were deported to Nazi death camps. Few who went lived to see the gates open in liberation.

As the horsemen of Nazi fascism laid waste across the face of Europe, Imi and those he sought to protect, were focusing hard on just trying to remain alive. Haunted by death, hidden within the shadows, Imi Lcihtenfeld all the while was developing his skills. In a world where violence and death was a common commodity, the ability to control violence had become a valued currency. It was from this crucible that Imi poured a molten form of what was to be Krav Maga.

Many years later, an Imi well versed in the intimacies of both dignity and death, would profound the fundamentals of Krav Maga as: "Don't get hurt. Be humble. Conduct yourself properly and with dignity; and reach proficiency so you won't have to take lives".

In 1940, the Nazi war machine was razor sharp. Seemingly unstoppable, its bloodied edge raced toward its final crescendo; a complete and total extermination of European Jewry. Jews all across Europe were caught in this tide of blood, terror, and treachery. Desperate, they fled extermination any way they could. Few possessed the required documentation or authorization to do so. For them death or worse hung in the air like a stench. Imi, whose selfless service to the community's defense activities had made him a wanted man, left his Bratislava.

Welcomed by the Beitar Zionist Youth movement, Imi boarded a derelict paddle-wheeler. Overburdened with Jews bearing Paraguayan visas, she officially sailed for Paraguay. But in reality she was making headway to an illegal entry into British Palestine. Even as the last refugee ship to escape Europe sailed for freedom, her fate was not lost to the twisted hand of fate. It was to be a journey that would more than once contest Imi's life.

Skirting the hostile shores of Hungary, Croatia, and Yugoslavia, the 85 year-old Pentcho threaded her way down through the Danube to the Black Sea. Denied of entry, wanting for fuel, and risking reprisal, the Pentcho the steamed into Romanian and Bulgarian waters. The dark wolves of man and nature were never far from her heels.

During the passage the ship's captain overdosed on morphine. Stricken down with a violent ear infection Imi himself negotiated with death. Starving and under fire to prevent them from mooring, the old girl limped into the Aegean Sea. If there was ever a curse on her, it was then. Exhausted and fatigued the Pentcho's boiler blew. The explosion ripped the old lady, rendering her and all aboard shipwrecked on one of the Greek Dodecanese Islands. Once again Imi answered to his calling, during the catalyst of confusion he plunged into the sea to save a child who had gone overboard and was drowning.

In the face of overwhelming disaster, Imi and three other refugees commandeered a lifeboat. For three days they rowed before a British airplane spotted them and summoned a British warship to pull them from the sea. For Imi the turn of the cards favored fortune, while on board naval doctors were able to attend to his ear and speed his recovery.

For Pentcho's 500 passengers left behind however, only tragedy awaited. For the majority of them, this one month journey turned into a four year internment at Italy's Ferramonti concentration camp. For Imi, pain and perseverance delivered him. He disembarked at British controlled Egypt where he immediately joined the Czech Legion serving as a subordinate to the British military. After a year of active service he was discharged, and granted permission to enter the British Mandate of Palestine.

Arriving in 1942, Imi again saw Palestine Jews living as heavily restricted second class citizens, forced to pay additional taxes, and prohibited from entering their holy city of Jerusalem. Once again Jews forbidden to bear arms, intentionally left open to violent attacks. This time the attacks were by the Arabs of the region. The only security for their families, homes, and businesses that could be had, came in the form of paramilitary groups, such as the Haganah (Hebrew for The Defense), its sub-forces the Pal'mach (a British-authorized special forces unit), and the Palyam (a maritime unit specializing in water operations).

In 1944 the head of the Haganah, Yitzhak Sadeh, well aware of Imi's widely respected fighting skills, and ingenuity, immediately recruited him as an instructor of face-to-face combat (Kapap). Imi immediately began training troops in specialized forms of physical fitness training.

His training emphasised swimming, obstacle training, practical wrestling, knife fighting and knife defense, sentry removal, bayonet tactics, stave and stick fighting, and any other military-oriented problems that required a creative solution.

From 1942 to 1948, he trained the elite special units of the Haganah, Pal'mach (the striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), Palyam, and of the police forces.

In 1948, the United Nation's founded the State of Israel, a decision that would motivate the Arab-Israeli Wars. Imi's Kapap methods would soon feel the test of battle.

On the 26 of May 1948 Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion disbanded the paramilitary units and created the Israel Defense Forces. Imi was selected as the Chief Instructor at the IDF School of Combat Fitness. Under this authority Imi rifled through his own knowledge and experiences, correlating them with the knowledge and experiences of his trainees. Like many of the modern era greats Imi possessed the rare trait of listening. He expanded his methods with the most efficient elements of defense and offense. This new method of fighting was called contact combat (Krav Maga).

In 1963 Imi, like many Eastern European Jewish immigrants before him, paid reverence to his Jewish homeland by adopting the Hebrew version of his name. The direct translation of Lichtenfeld was "field of light", and so Imi become Imi Sde'Or. From that time on, his teaching skills were globally in demand. His life would remain dedicated to the training future generations of students, and to the expansion and refinement of the style.

In 1964, after Imi's retired from the army leaving them Krav Maga and a future Chief Instructor to continue in his footprints. For Imi, he was in pursuit of a new vision. He began adapting Krav Maga, developing methods that best fit their police forces and ordinary civilians. He trained teams of Krav Maga instructors, who were individually accredited by both him and the Israeli Ministry of Education. He then opened two new training centers, Tel-Aviv and Netanya. Now his newly formulated methods could allow anyone to survive a violent attack while sustaining minimal harm.

Until his final days Imi and his closest students, Eli Avikzar,Eyal Yanilov, and Haim Gidon, continued to develop Krav Maga techniques, concepts and instructional methods. He continued to personally supervise the high ranks training, and spent time with his instructors inside Israel and out. Imi's instruction often reached out beyond the walls of self defense and combat training, to emphasize the need for character building and moral fortitude.

During his life Imi took great care to always promote his principles; "Respect for others. Avoidance of an unjustified use of force. Modesty. Dignity. Peace-loving conduct. And a strict adherence to fair play".

Then early in the morning on January 9, 1998, a Friday, just five hours after being admitted to the Netanya hospital, Emerich "Imi" Lichtenfeld , "The field of Light" dimmed in finality and faded away. Age 87,... Imi closed his eyes.

Behind, left to us Krav Maga, the legacy of Imi Lichtenfeld.

In that thought, we need remember the man who had rose from treachery to triumph, "Be so good, that you need not kill".

 

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