Imre “Imi” Lichtenfeld (May 26, 1910–January 9, 1998) was an Israeli martial artist who founded the Krav Maga self-defense system. He was also known as Imi Sde-Or, the Hebrew calque of his name.
Lichtenfeld was born on May 26, 1910, to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up in Pozsony (now Bratislava). His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, was a chief inspector on the Bratislava police force and a former circus acrobat. Lichtenfeld trained at the Hercules Gymnasium, which was owned by his father, who taught self-defense. As a young man, Lichtenfeld was a successful boxer and wrestler. He competed at national and international levels and was a champion and member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team.
In the late 1930s, anti-Semitic riots threatened the Jewish population of Bratislava. Together with other Jewish boxers and wrestlers, Lichtenfeld helped to defend his Jewish neighborhood against rascist gangs. He quickly realized that sport has little in common with real combat and began developing a system of techniques for practical self-defense in life threatening situations.
In 1935, Lichtenfeld visited Palestine with a team of Jewish wrestlers to participate in the Maccabi games but could not participate because of a broken rib that resulted from his training while on route. This led to the fundamental krav maga precept, ‘do not get hurt’ while training. Lichtenfeld returned to Czechoslovakia to face increasing anti-Semitic violence. Lichtenfeld organized a group of young Jews to protect his community. On the streets, he acquired hard won experience and the crucial understanding of the differences between sport fighting and street fighting. He developed his fundamental self-defense principle: ‘use natural movements and reactions’ for defense, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack. From this evolved the refined theory of ‘simultaneous defense and attack’ while ‘never occupying two hands in the same defensive movement.’
In 1940, Lichtenfeld fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, heading for Palestine on the Aliyah Bet vessel, Pencho, which shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands. He arrived in Israel in 1942 after serving with great notoriety in the Czech Legion. Israel’s early leaders immediately recognized Lichtenfeld’s fighting prowess and ingenuity. He began to train Israel’s first fighting units the Palmach, Palyam, and Haganah in military close quarters combat. This training included fighting fitness, bayonet tactics, sentry removal, knife fighting, stave/stick fighting, and any other military-oriented problems that required a creative solution. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, he became the Chief Instructor of Physical Training in the Israel Defense Forces. It was during this time that his system came to be called Krav Maga.
In 1944 Lichtenfeld began training fighters in his areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, use of the knife, and defenses against knife attacks. During this period, he trained several elite units of the Hagana and Palmach (striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), including the Pal-Yam, as well as groups of police officers.
In 1964, Lichtenfeld retired from the Israeli military. He then modified krav maga to fit the needs of police forces and ordinary civilians. He trained teams of krav maga instructors, who were accredited by him and the Israeli Ministry of Education. He also created the Israeli Krav Maga Association in 1978. On January 9, 1998, Lichtenfeld died in Netanya, Israel, at the age of 87.