Bio Imi Lichtenfeld

Imi Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 in Bratislava, in Czechoslovakia. Inspired and encouraged by his father Samuel, a former circus acrobat and wrestler, PE teacher, detective and instructor in chief with the local police, recognised not only for his teaching of self-defence but also for his numerous arrests, Imi was involved in many different sports.

He eventually concentrated on gymnastics, wrestling and boxing, actively participating in a great number of competitions over a period of ten years. He frequently won, particularly in wrestling.

In 1928, Imi won the Slovakian wrestling championship, in the youth section.

In 1929, he won the same wrestling championship but in the adult section, in two different weight categories, as well as the national boxing championship and an international gymnastics competition.

In 1935, a rib broken during training just before a competition in Palestine prevented him from taking part; he concluded a practical principle of safety from the incident, running counter to the “win at any price” attitude: “above all, don’t get hurt”.

From 1936 to 1940, Imi devoted himself mainly to wrestling, both training and competition, winning a dozen medals and prizes. He was considered one of the best wrestlers in Europe. At the same time, he also found time for acrobatics, and got involved in drama. He taught gymnastics to one of the best theatre troupes in Czechoslovakia, and performed in a number of productions.

During this period, Imi was involved in countless confrontations and street fights with anti-Semitic aggressors, both alone and as part of a group. With the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism, the Nazis spread into Slovakia, and Jews were violently attacked. Imi organised a group of young Jews, mainly with backgrounds in boxing, wrestling and bodybuilding, to stand up to the rioting and to prevent anti-Semitic gangs from entering the Jewish quarter. This meant he was involved in many brawls, and it sharpened his awareness of the differences between street fighting and sport competitions. The first principles of Krav Maga were laid down:

·       Make use of reflex actions and natural movement

·       Attack and defend simultaneously

·       Recover after a blow

In 1940, Imi became a problem for the local authorities which had turned Fascist, and had to leave his home, his family and his friends. He managed to board the last immigrant boat to succeed in escaping the Nazis. It was an old river boat called the Pentcho, converted for transporting hundreds of refugees from central Europe to the Promised Land of Israel (Palestine).

Imi’s two-year odyssey on board the boat is full of moving episodes.

In the Romanian Delta, the boat was put in quarantine to try to starve the passengers. On several occasions Imi had to jump into the water to save passengers who had fallen overboard or to pick up sacks of food, putting his own life at risk. Saving a child from drowning, he contracted an ear infection which almost cost him his life.

The boat survived because of its flat bottom, which meant that it was able to avoid triggering mines. Later, however, the boat’s boiler exploded, and the boat was washed up on the Greek island of Kamilanisi.

Imi and four friends took to a lifeboat and set off towards Crete to get help. Imi chose to ignore his ear infection and the arguments of his friends, and refused to give up the oars for a whole day. Despite their heroic efforts, however, violent winds capsized their boat and they never reached Crete. On the morning of the fifth day, a British warship picked up the five survivors and took them to Alexandria, in Egypt. Imi was in a bad way, and was operated on a number of times in hospital. He was close to death, and the doctors held out little hope of his recovery, but the surgeon managed to save his life.

 

imiarmee

 

 Once he had recovered, Imi joined the Czech legion under the command of the British Army at the time. He served at different locations in the Middle East for eighteen months, until he managed to obtain an entrance permit for Israel (Palestine).

 

In 1942, some of Imi’s friends introduced him to General Sadeh, a general in the Hagana (meaning “armed force” – the precursor of the Israeli Defensive Forces (IDF)). The Hagana had been set up in 1920 to organise the defence of Jewish people in Palestine, which was considered illegal by the British Army which administered the territory and was in charge of its defence. He was immediately accepted into the organisation because of his skill in hand-to-hand fighting.

In 1948, with the birth of the State of Israel and the IDF, Imi became Chief Instructor of physical training and Krav Maga for the army. He served the IDF for twenty years, refining and developing his unique method of self-defence.

 

Imi personally trained the best fighters in Israel’s elite units, and trained many generations of Krav Maga instructors, earning recognition from the highest ranks in the army.

Later, the Ministry of Education was to confer the State’s gratitude on him for teaching Krav Maga to civilians. Krav Maga had to meet the various requirements of the IDF: it had to be easy to learn and to apply, so that anyone – whether a soldier, an office worker, or a fighter in an elite unit – would be able to achieve the necessary effectiveness and efficiency in the shortest possible time, and would be able to apply the techniques even when under intense stress.

In the early 1960s, while training a unit of guards in the Royal Police in Ethiopia, Imi realised that one of his students was trying to injure him for real while he was demonstrating defence against a bayonet attack. At the next attack, Imi hit him very hard and put him out of action. The incident made him think about the attitude to transmit to students, for training under good conditions, and preventing injuries: “don’t try to prove who you are”.

 

couteau

 

In 1964, after retiring from the IDF, Imi began to adapt Krav Maga to civilian requirements. He adapted the method so that it would suit everyone: men and women, young people and adults – everyone who might need to survive an attack with a minimum level of risk and injury.

 

To spread his method, Imi set up two training centres, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Netanya, the town where he lived, and this became a focal point for Krav Maga practitioners. He adopted the belt system to give Krav Maga structure and ensure a rapid, safe progression for students. During this time, Imi continued to serve as a consultant and instructor of Krav Maga for the IDF and other security forces.

In 1972, the first instructors’ training course for civilians began at the Wingate Institute. The method then spread among many civilians.

In 1978, Imi created the Krav Maga Association in order to spread the method wider and transmit its values. He remained its President until the end of his life.

In 1981, Krav Maga began to develop worldwide. Until his dying day, Imi continued to develop both the techniques and concepts of Krav Maga. He supervised personally the people with the highest Krav Maga grades and spent time with the instructors. Imi checked on the progress and successes of his students, captivating them with his unique personality and strong sense of humour, and passing on to them his knowledge and his opinions.

On 8 January 1998, Imi died at the age of 87; his mind remained strong even in his last moments. 

The Krav Maga system Imi developed is founded on moral and human values that emphasise the importance of integrity, humility, and respect for others.

 

Thanks to Steve Schmitt for his research.

 

 

 

The very essence of Krav Maga rests on several principles

Firstly, there is a relatively general principle of prevention – avoid getting into a dangerous situation: a hitch-hiker, for example, needs to avoid dodgy-looking people and walking through the dangerous areas of a city.

Secondly, Krav Maga is based on the natural reflexes of the human body.

Thirdly, take the shortest route for both defence and attack, from whatever position you are in, and try not to expose yourself to personal risk any more than necessary.

Fourthly, depending on the situation and as necessary, according to the level of danger the opponent represents, try to discourage him by talking.

Fifthly, make use of the sensitive points of the human body (eyes, throat, etc) to attack or overcome your opponent.

Sixthly, try to use any object within reach before using the body’s natural weapons.

Seventhly, the most realistic principle – anything goes. There is no law or limit regarding techniques; nothing is disallowed.

 

"Master self-defence so well that you never have to kill anyone"

Karaté Bushido no.195 - October 1992

 

Imi Lichtenfeld died on 8 January 1998. Krav Maga has lost its founding father, and the task falls to us to perpetuate its teaching, its enrichment, and above all the spirit of its founder.

 

What can I say about the loss of Imi, except to express the regret that we have not all been able to know this exceptional man. Particularly since the founder of Krav Maga – a martial discipline of his creation that is as reputed as it is feared – had a strong personality – which is hardly surprising – and was above all a kind and humane person who is hard to match.

You may think that is a paradox, but is it really? Isn’t seeking the best, sleekest movement bound to clear the practitioner’s mind, freeing him of negative emotions? Unless it is the other way round, and that it was Imi’s exceptionally clear mind that enabled him to devise the implacably logical method that constitutes Krav Maga.

For the teaching role we have, I would like to think that the process works in both directions, making us useful in some small way in the psychological and spiritual evolution of the practitioners we are responsible for. Imi is no longer with us, but for as long as we cultivate the paradox of teaching Krav Maga effectively and teaching humanity beyond its techniques, part of his spirit and his kindliness will continue to live in us.

Richard DOUIEB