How 1930s Fascism Created Today's Trendiest Self-Defense

How 1930s Fascism Created Today's Trendiest Self-Defense

Why you should care

Because behind the trending self-defense system is a Slovak Jew who fought for his life against Nazi wannabes in the ’30s. And taught thousands to do the same. 

In May 1940, 500 immigrants, many Jewish, boarded the last boat to escape the rapidly tightening Nazi death-grip on Europe. The ship, Pentcho , started in Bratislava, Slovakia, wended its way down the Danube, was quarantined in Romanian waters — its passengers purposefully brought to the brink of starvation — and at last scratched its way into the Aegean Sea. Then the cursed ship wrecked. Most passengers were interned at a concentration camp in Italy, but a few evaded capture.

army soldier portrait in black and white

Imi Lichtenfeld

Among the Pentcho ’s escapees was Imi Lichtenfeld — and with him survived the concept of Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand self-defense system now officially used by the Israeli Defense Forces. Since the 1980s, Krav Maga has spread at breakneck speed (pun intended) and is taught worldwide to police, military and civilians alike. Amassing techniques from a range of fighting styles, including Muay Thai, boxing and jujitsu, Krav Maga (“contact combat” in Hebrew) looks to laypeople like a wild, merciless flurry of low blows and eye gouges. But Krav Maga isn’t meant to be pretty. It’s meant to provide anyone and everyone with the skills to defend themselves from armed and unarmed attacks on the street.

It makes sense that a style developed for the streets was developed in the streets — the violently anti-Semitic streets of Bratislava in the ’30s, that is. Imi, the son of a circus performer and police detective, trained in his father’s gym, Hercules, where he became a national wrestling and boxing, and international gymnastics, champion. A ballroom dancer, too.

It was either hit or run. I found the hitting more satisfying.

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga

But Bratislava was no place for dancing. From the 1920s, facist paramilitary groups in Slovakia developed ties to the Nazis via the Slovak Populist Party. After the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, their members routinely beat Jews, looted their stores and signed them up for deportation. Later, the paramilitary groups would run Slovakia’s concentration camps.

Imi fought back. “It was either hit or run,” he told People in 1976. “I found the hitting more satisfying.”

He began training his friends to hit, too. First, he taught them boxing. He incorporated the bloody feedback he received from brawls, tweaking techniques to better meet real-life threats. By the time he boarded the Pentcho , Imi carried with him an effective, by-any-means-necessary fighting style with a sole purpose: “Don’t get hurt.” Eventually, priority No. 1 expanded : “Don’t get hurt, be humble and conduct yourself with dignity – reach proficiency so you won’t have to take lives.” (At least not unnecessarily.)

After serving in the Czechoslovak Legion with the British Army in North Africa, Imi arrived in British Palestine to find that his skills were, to put it lightly, in demand. He immediately began training Jewish paramilitary fighters to combat their Arab counterparts. Six years later, when the First Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948, Imi (who changed his surname to Sde’or) was picked to head the IDF’s close combat training. Thus was Krav Maga institutionalized.

self defense martial art of krav maga demonstrated by two soldiers.

After serving in the Czechoslovak Legion with the British Army, Imi Lichtenfeld arrived in British Palestine to find that his skills were in demand.

Fast forward to 1972, when Krav Maga is taught to Israeli civilians and later exported to the United States and elsewhere. These days, even Brangelina get down. Naturally, some federations and centers claim others practice a watered-down sport version. Imi, who died at 87 in 1998, would be skeptical as well. “When a martial art becomes a sport … the lethal movements have to be restricted,” he said . “This destroys the basic principle of Krav Maga: You automatically end the fight by putting an end to your opponent.”

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