Imi – Creator and Founder of the Israel Martial Art for
Self-Defense – The Krav-Maga
“Do What You Can but Do It Right”
Imi (or by his full name – Imirich Lichtenfeld), was born in 26 of May 1910, in the City of Bratislava, which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
His father, Samuel Lichtenfled, was the chief detective in his city, and it was him who started to develop some techniques of self-defense to train the policemen under him.
Imi was a very strong man physically and practiced and explored almost every possible aspect of body related activities: from one side, he worked for many years in the circus, and his specialty was the trapeze, considered to be the most difficult skill to dominate of all the circus performances. In the martial arts, Imi trained and achieved the black belt in Judo and in Traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. He was also a heavy weight European boxing champion, and this was back in the days in which there were not many rules in boxing – the winner was simply the last man to stand on his feet, and in most times those fights were held without any protective gear, like gloves etc.
Imi wanted to take part in the first Maccabiah games, held in Israel in 1932. However, as boxing was not a part of the games’ program, Imi chose and began practicing another fighting sport, the Greco-Roman Wrestling (although he won several titles, he never became a big fan of this sport).
But, from the other hand and to emphasize the softness of his personality and his movements, he also owned one of the biggest schools for waltz dancing at that time and became a notorious Waltz teacher. Without a doubt his enormous and unique repertoire of body movements was essential for the later creation of Krav-Maga.
During the 1930’s, when anti-Semitism in Europe became stronger and more apparent, Imi organized several of his friends into groups who used to go out and “teach a lesson” to anti-Semitic outlaws who regularly attacked and hurt Jews in the streets of his city.
When the Second World War erupted, Imi joined and served until the end of the war in the Czech Legion, which was a part of the Royal British Army. During his service, he participated in the battle of Egypt, where British forces defeated the Nazi army under the command of General Rommel. After the end of the war, Imi traveled to Israel, where he immediately joined the Israeli resistant movements of the Independence War, which was fought against the British occupation and the neighboring Arab states. It was during those days that Imi started to develop the first techniques of self defense. Being one of few in Israel who had vast experience in face to face combat, he started creating and teaching techniques of stick fighting, knife using, silent attacks and techniques to take down guards without the use of firearms. Besides this, Imi also took upon himself another dangerous mission.
One of the main objectives at that time was to bring to Israel as much Jewish refugees as possible from the destroyed post-war Europe. For this end, dangerously old ships were bought and used. However, some of those ships were caught while on their way to Israel by the Royal Navy and were usually confiscated and the refugees onboard were deported to the Island of Cyprus. When Imi arrived to Israel, he joined the “Hagana”, the biggest and most influential resistance organization. Being an extraordinary swimmer, he took upon himself the task of swimming towards the sea vessels when they approach the Israeli beach and guide them to an abandoned point along the shore, so the new immigrants could safely disembark.
In one of those times, Imi and a couple of his colleagues boarded an “Hagana” ship called “Pancho”, but a few hours later, while approaching the beach, the ship was intercepted by the British police force. In order to avoid being captured, and probably even getting killed, the three warriors jumped to the water, assuming they will be able to swim back to Israel. But as they quickly found out, they had badly miscalculated. One of them did not make it and died of dehydration, while Imi and the other survivor of the small group swam for three days until they were picked up by an Egyptian fishing boat. As a result of the long staying in the water, the burning sun and the dehydration, his face became permanently disfigured.
After the foundation of the State of Israel and the subsequent creation of the Israeli Defense Forces, Imi naturally joined the new established army and became the chief-instructor of Self defense in the armed forces for the next 19 years, until retiring in 1967. At that time, the complete Krav-Maga as we know it did not exist yet. During his service in the army Imi never had the chance to spend more than a week or two with each group of soldiers he trained and it was impossible to create a complete martial art under these conditions.
Therefore, when he retired in 1967, he opened two academies: one in his hometown of Netanya and the other one in the city of Tel-Aviv. His objective was to assemble a group of loyal students with which he will be able develop the Israeli martial art for self-defense. His mission was successful and during the years Imi qualified a group of ten disciples, to whom he taught everything he knew and those were the only ten people to receive a black belt from him.
The two academies he opened, in Netanya and Tel-Aviv, Imi passed to his two most senior students, in order to guarantee the continuation of his way and his martial art.
His professional achievements, reputation and success inside the military circles had such positive repercussions that his name became rapidly known also in places not directly connected to the army, such as the police and the different security services. Consequently, Imi received several requests to build and to plan specific self-defense techniques to be used by law enforcement agents, and the quality and operational capacity of those exercises are considered until today exceptional and unique. After the Olympic Games in Munich, in 1972, Germany decided that it will build the world best anti-terror unit. Thus, the first thing they did was to summon Imi to train the new unit.
Another example occurred during the Sixties. The Israeli Foreign Minister received an official request from the Ethiopian emperor at the time, Haile Selassie, to help him build a royal bodyguards unit. Imi, who was already the chief-instructor for self-defense in the armed forces, was sent to the African state to help train the emperor soldiers. Years later, in the only official visit of Haile Selassie to Israel, the Ethiopian ruler demanded that Imi will participate in the reception ceremony, what indeed happened. This is just one episode of many in which Imi and some of his most senior students took part in the ongoing secret operations to guarantee the safety and security of the State of Israel and its citizens, doing their part by promoting and developing Krav-Maga.
Imi as a role model for many generations to come, became a living legend.
Imi died at the old age of eighty eight, in a hospital in the city of Natanya, in January 10th 1998. The day of his death and his funeral were very sad to all his students and followers. A relatively small number of people came to accompany him in his last journey, although some students arrived from abroad to give their respects.
Imi was buried in Israel, the country he loved so much, in a typical cold and rainy January day. In the end of this very sad day, a great and beloved man was buried in the holy land of Israel.
And you, a Krav-Maga student and instructor, when you come to Israel to a visit, go to the Natanya Municipal cemetery. In the main entrance turn to the left and then left again in the second turn. Cross over the empty terrain and you will quickly find the tomb of Imi. It is a Jewish custom to put small stones on the edge of the tomb. Give this giant man the honor and respect he deserves.
I wrote this article looking at the one hundred years anniversary of Imi, in order to give a small gleam on the man he was, as the founder and creator of the Krav-Maga. This is the least I could have done for the one who was for me a teacher, a friend, a brother, a father and someone to cherish and to love for all times. This is my way for showing my gratitude to him for choosing me to be the one who will continue his way, for teaching me the mysteries and the secrets of the martial art he had created.
Grand Master Yaron Lichtenstein
Sensei Rotem Lichtenstein