I am going to flat-out admit my ignorance about the various forms of martial arts. I don’t know the differences between various martial arts, their underlying philosophies, or even the rules of the MMA fights that my daughter and her friends love to watch.

So it’s not surprising that I didn’t know anything about Krav Maga.

Krav Maga, which translates from Hebrew as “contact combat”, is a self-defense system of fighting in close contact. Basically, fighting off an attacker. It was developed in such a way that people of different ages, genders, and levels of fitness could learn it quickly.

“Krav maga” lesson in paratroopers school. Israel, 1955. Author TZAHAL via Wikimedia Commons.

Imi Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary and grew up in Bratislava, which is now in Slovakia. His father had been part of a professional circus, where he learned gymnastics and other sports, and then became a police inspector. While working for the police, he also owned a gym and taught self-defense.

Lichtenfeld trained at his father’s gym and became an international competitor in sports such as boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics.

But when he was in his 20s, things in Europe took a dark turn, especially for Jewish families. In 1930s Bratislava, anti-Semitic gangs wandered the streets harassing Jewish people. Lichtenfeld and other young men banded together to protect their neighborhoods from these gangs.

It didn’t take long for Lichtenfeld to realize that the martial arts training he had done for sport was a world away from street fighting. The biggest difference was that there were no rules in street fighting.

Lichtenfeld had enough variety in his previous training that he could identify the problems and develop his new fighting style. And his new fighting skills were working well enough that he became a target and needed to get out of Europe.

He left Europe in 1940 and, after an eventful two years, landed in British-ruled Palestine in 1942. His family did not make it out and were killed there during the war.

In 1944 he started training others in his fighting style, including special forces and police officers. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, he served in the newly form Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), still training others in what was called Krav Maga.

Krav Maga – Grand Master Imi Lichtenfeld (left) and Yaron Lichtenstein. Author Yaron Lichtenstein via Wikimedia Commons.

When Lichtenfeld retired in 1964 he had refined his self-defense and hand-to-hand combat methods and decided to train civilians. He established two training centers in Israel, and eventually his system went global.

He died in 1998 at the age of 87. Here is a tribute video. I found the music distracting and the subtitles difficult to read, but the photos are great.

Krav Maga. A system of self-defense now taught globally was originally developed to help a group of men protect their Jewish families from anti-Semitic gangs.