Krav Maga was developed in the struggle to create the nation of Israel. Imrich "Imi" Lichtenfeld, the founder of the art, was born in 1910 in Hungary and raised in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, was a chief detective who also owned the first modern gym in Bratislava. He was active in wrestling, boxing, and weight lifting. Samuel had been an excellent wrestler and he encouraged Imi to participate in many athletic activities, including wrestling and boxing. Imi won many championships, achieving exceptional accomplishment in boxing and wrestling. Between the years of 1929 and 1939, Imi was one of Europe's best and most well-known wrestlers.
In 1936, Germany adopted the Nuremburg Laws which declared Jews as inferior and not entitled to the laws protecting non-Jewish Germans. Attacks against Jews were regular occurences in the streets of many Eastern European cities. Imi and other Jewish men were involved in altercations with anti-Semites in Bratislava in attempts to protect the Jewish community from attacks. As fascism spread in the late 1930's, Jews struggled to survive.
In April 1940, at the age of 30, Imi left Bratislava. By the 1940s, Jews across Europe were lining up by the thousands in a final attempt to flee Nazi persecution. Imi was able to book passage on a ship, the Pentcho, one of the final ships to leave Europe carrying Jewish passengers. The ships documented destination was Paraguay, the passengers had Paraguayan visas, but it was actually headed for Israel and illegal entry into British Palestine. The Pentcho was not a safe boat, barely capable of staying afloat, and carried 500 passengers. During the voyage the Romanian authorities denied it entry into local waters, the route that needed to be taken in order to reach Israel. Despite the refusal, the ship entered Romanian and Bulgarian waters while under attack. In the Aegean sea, an explosion destroyed the ship, leaving the passengers shipwrecked on an Italian island. When the Italian authorities detained the passengers, the majority of the people on board were sent to the Italian concentration camp Ferramonti. The voyage that was to take one month turned into a four year long nightmare.
When the Pentcho was shipwrecked, Imi and a few other passengers were able to use a lifeboat that took them to Egypt, then under British control. There he joined the Czech Legion which patrolled areas in Egypt. When he was discharged, he received permission to enter what was then known as the British Mandate for Palestine, modern-day Israel. In 1942 Jews were considered second class citizens. They were forced to pay additional taxes, were subject to occasional violence, and were rarely allowed to enter the holy city of Jerusalem.
They were not allowed to carry weapons and were not protected from violent attacks by the Arabs of the region; they relied upon the paramilitary group Haganah (Hebrew for "The Defense") and the Pal'mach (a British-authorized special forces unit) to provide protection for their families, homes, and businesses.
Yitzhak Sadeh, the head of the Haganah, recruited Imi as an instructor in face-to-face combat because of his fighting skills. In 1944, Imi began to teach specialized physical fitness training, which included knife offenses and defenses. Between 1942 and 1948, Imi supervised the training of the special units of the Haganah, Pal'mach, Palyam, and of the police forces. This training was called Kapap (krav panim l'panim: face-to-face combat).
In 1948, the United Nations granted statehood to Israel, and partitioned Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. This decision precipitated the 1948 War of Independance, the war between the nation of Israel and its Arab neighbors who rejected the UN proposition. Ultimately, the region was divided among Israel, Egypt, and Transjordan (modern-day Jordan). The first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, created the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Imi joined the Israeli army in 1948, beginning his 15 year military service with the IDF. He began to create techniques for military training. This new fighting style was named Krav Maga, or contact combat. As head instructor for the IDF, Imi used his experience and knowledge to create the style of Krav Maga.
From 1948 through 1963, Imi developed his method of self-defense and face-to-face combat, which he taught to Israeli soldiers. During that time he personally qualified the best fighters in the most elite units of the IDF. In 1963, when Imi retired from military service, he had modified the style with the goal that it could be taught to civilians. To promote Krav Maga , Imi opened two schools, one in Tel Aviv and one in Netanya. From then on, Imi's life would be dedicated to training future generations in Krav Maga and to the expansion and refinement of the style. It was during this time that Imi, like many Jewish émigrés to Israel, adopted the Hebrew version of his name, Imi Sde'Or, the translation of Lichtenfeld (field of light).
In 1972, the first civilian instructor course for Krav Maga was taught at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports. Wingate is the training center for Israeli Olympic athletes and is under the authority of the Israeli Ministry of Sport and Education. (http://www.jewishsports.net/wingate_institute.htm
). In addition to its role as the official style of the Israeli Defense Force, the Israeli Security Forces, the Israeli Police department and Military Police, and the Anti-Terrorism Forces, Krav Maga became an integral part of elementary and high school education for Israeli youth, and a national form of self-defense meant to empower all Israeli citizens.
In 1978, the Federation for Krav Maga and Self-Defense - Imi's Method, was created. The purpose was to promote the purity of Krav Maga, while allowing it to develop as the national self defense method. The goal was to create the highest authority for Krav Maga. The founders of the federation were: Imi Sde'Or (President), Barak Yehoshua (Head of the Professional Committee), Tsvi Morik (Secretary), Haim Zut, Eli Avigzar, Rafi Algrisi, Haim Gidon, and Oskar Klein.
Grandmaster Imi Sde'Or passed away on January 8th, 1998. He is remembered as a hero of the Israeli people and as a prominent figure in the modern world of martial arts.