The founder of the system – Imi Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1910. His family moved to Bratislava, Slovakia, where Imi grew up. His father, Samuel Lichtenfeld, had experience boxing and wrestling. Samuel Lichtenfeld was a police detective and held the leading record of arrests as well as serving as the police force’s self-defense instructor.
Samuel Lichtenfeld also opened up a fitness gym that provided training in boxing, wrestling, and Judo – a very rare type of facility in the early 20th century. Imi began training at his father’s gym focusing on both sport combat and self-defense training. In the 1930s, Central Europe was starting to fall to Fascist power. Anti-semitism was spreading rapidly, and Jewish people were regularly targeted for discrimination and violent attacks.
Imi organized small groups of Jewish people to form an underground defense organization that patrolled the streets of his community and defended Jews who were attacked by Fascist thugs. Imi gained a significant amount of real fighting experience and learned to distinguish between the sports fighting of wrestling and boxing and real street fighting – which often involved knives, sticks, and multiple attackers.
In 1939 World War II broke out with the German invasion of Poland, and Imi joined the Czech Free Legion and fought on the British side as a combat soldier. This experience further helped Imi to apply and test his system with even more complex and threatening situations.
When World War II ended, Imi moved to Jewish Palestine, the region that would later comprise Israel. At the time, this region was a British protectorate. After facing the Nazi threat, the Jewish survivors were now faced with the threat of Arab extremists who were violently opposed to the presence of the Jewish religion, and Jewish people in that region. Israel was not yet a state and there was no Israel Defense Force.
The defense of the Jewish people fell to the underground Jewish Defense Leagues known as the Haganah (Hebrew for “defense”), the Palyam (Plugot Yam – Hebrew for “sea companies), and the Palmach (Plugot Mahatz – Hebrew for “strike companies.”)
Imi Lichtenfeld was recognized for his extensive knowledge and fighting capability and was placed in charge of training the Jewish Defense Leagues in hand-to-hand combat as well as unconventional warfare tactics such as stealth maneuvers, sentry removal, and knife and stick fighting. At this point, the training was referred to as Kapap – the Hebrew acronym for “krav panim el panim,” which means face-to-face combat.
The Israel Defense Force was officially established. Imi Lichtenfeld was immediately assigned as Chief Commander of the IDF’s hand-to-hand combat and physical fitness division. Krav Maga history continued with formal recognition as the official training system of an entire military. This system of self-defense, which was now injected with even more real combat experience and had been put to the test through years of violent conflict, was developed into a system now officially called Krav Maga – Hebrew for “contact combat.”
Imi officially retired from the IDF in 1968, after 20 years of service. He founded the Israeli Krav Maga Association and pursued his goal of spreading Krav Maga around the world so that every man, woman, and child could learn a system that would help them survive if confronted with violence.