The Martial Arts / Self-Defense Style Invented in Bratislava

Krav Maga

June 23, 2011

By Allan Stevo

The story goes like this and it’s a story that no Slovak has ever told me.  A young man, a Hungarian Jew, sometime after his birth in 1910 moved with his family to Bratislava from Budapest.  He lived in the Vydrica neighborhood below the castle, formerly the Jewish ghetto of Bratislava.

From time to time in the pre-WWII period Hlinka Guard members, members of Rodobrana, or other ruffians would come into the neighborhood looking to heckle and beat up the local Jewish kids.  In response this young man, a boxer by training, started teaching the neighborhood kids how to box, adapting the technique in a way that made it more effective for the street.  No rules.  No holds barred.  Hit hard.  Hit first.  Fight dirty.  Fight quickly.  Use anything at your disposal to temporarily incapacitate the guy giving you trouble.  Then get out of there as fast as you can.  He taught them a fighting style that would get them out of a bad situation in under 10 seconds and back on their way to wherever it was that they were going.

The self-defense style continues to be taught today and teaches principles like “Don’t get hurt,” “Don’t be macho,” and when you see a weapon that you can’t deal with “RUN!”  If you see an attacker coming with a weapon from a distance, maintain that distance.  Hand-to-hand combat is a last option and when it happens it is intended to be as quick as possible.  Strike first, with quick, repeated blows, ideally targeted at sensitive parts of the body to be most effective.

In 1940, that young man, Imi Lichtenfeld, then aged 30, left Slovakia for Palestine, in a journey that would take him more than two years to complete.  It ended up being quite the circuitous path.  He and about 500 others left Bratislava, Slovakia, on a converted riverboat named Pentcho on May 18, 1940, (a trip that is chronicled in the book Odyssey by John Bierman, which you can buy used on Amazon for $4.oo ) that traveled down the Danube and into the Black Sea and then past Istanbul into the Aegean Sea before shipwrecking near Crete.

Lichtenfeld and a few others rowed away to seek help and were captured by chance by the British, who recruited Lichtenfeld to fight for the Czechoslovak Legions under the British flag in North Africa.  The rest of the boat was found by an Italian ship and were placed in the Italian internment camp Ferramonti di Tarsia.  Some two years after the journey had begun, Imi Lichtenfeld, who would come to be known by Imi Sde-Or, a Hebrew “translation” or calque of his German name Lichtenfeld, literally “light field,” finally arrived in Palestine.

He brought his Bratislava-developed and now battle-tested quick and dirty street fighting style of self defense with him and continued teaching others how to use it.   It became known as Krav Maga and grew into the preferred hand-to-hand combat technique of the fighting force that would come to be known as the Israeli Defense Force and the Israeli Occupation Force as well as the law enforcement and fighting forces of other government organizations around the world.  Today it is common for an Israeli citizen to have studied at least basic aspects of Lichtenfeld’s technique.

Continuing on the path of its origins, Krav Maga has developed into a system that allows large groups of untrained to people to easily learn to defend themselves.  This has proven helpful in preparing inexperienced military recruits for close combat training, which is necessary in countries with mandatory military service, as is the case in Israel.

It has become a staple of law enforcement and armies for its no nonsense, effective way of achieving a goal quickly. The goals of a civilian using Krav Maga are obviously different than the goals of a soldier – keeping oneself safe and disarming an opponent long enough to escape are civilian goals.  Militarily, Krav Maga is used to detain or mortally injure an opponent.

Self-defense and martial arts aficionados widely consider Krav Maga to be one of the more brutal and effective styles, but by no means is that conclusive – there seems to be controversy any time anyone claims that one fighting style is better than any other.

After a life filled with accolades and adventurous experiences, Imi Lichtenfeld died on January 9, 1998, at the age of 87.  Krav Maga, the fighting style he developed on the streets of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia and later Bratislava, Slovakia to fight off Nazi-wannabes, anti-Semites, and other troublemakers, continues to be practiced internationally by militaries and civilians alike.  That its origins are in Bratislava is a little known fact about this self-defense style known around the world.

With the intent of further immersing myself in the history of Slovakia and of Bratislava, I have ordered Lichtenfeld’s book (on Amazon) as well as Complete Krav Maga (on Amazon) to learn more about this little known aspect of Slovak history.  Both books sound informative and I look forward to reading them along with that John Bierman book on Pentcho’s voyage down the Danube.  The story of Pentcho deserves an article all it’s own – 500 Jews living in Bratislava are stuck in a landlocked country, surrounded on all sides by potential adversaries, so they find themselves a broken down river boat and crew that they proceed to take thousands of miles down a river and into the high seas.  Pentcho and Krav Maga are seldom-mentioned, barely known, but totally fascinating bits of Slovak history.

Comments anyone?  With the limited information I have at my disposal on this topic, I’d be very interested in learning more.  Please leave any info you may be able to add in the space below.  And if you have a friend who is into action movies or martial arts, please forward this along.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • Neat, I had no idea krav magaa originated in Slovakia. I was actually thinking I should learn some sort of self defense technique. I do yoga regularly but I don’t think that’s all that useful… I’ll order that book you left a link for.

  • Mark Lencho

    Jun 25th, 2011

    Allan, your acquaintence Michal Hvorecký should be able to fill you in with more on Imi Lichtenfeld, as his story is the subject matter of perhaps the longest historical digression in H’s latest book, Danube in America (Chapter 25, Boj Zblízka, Dunaj v Amerike 232-237). H’s protagonist, Martin Roy, has to learn Krav Maga techniques as part of his job as tour guide on a Danube cruise ship. It’s interesting that Krav Maga is invoked in the narration without any elaboration. Working on translating this book, I drew the conclusion from the lack of explanation that H’s Slovak audience would be able to contextualize this reference better than American readers, who would need an explicit pointer to make the connection between this method of self defense and Lichtenfeld.

    Incidentally, I highly recommend Hvorecký’s book to your audience, interested in particular in the relationship between Slovaks and Americans, as this relationship is the subject matter of the main narrative thread in the story. But H gives us a Slovak’s perspective. Right now, you would have to read it in Slovak, but an English translation is in the works!

  • Me neither !! I didn’t know that Krav Maga has its roots in Slovakia !! I don’t think that I would take a class. I’ve tried martial arts before, and it’s really hard. Yoga is much more appealing….and a loaded gun !!

  • Very cool article, Alan. I may have to pick up a bit of Krav Maga before the next time I head out to some of my favorite dive bars.

  • Lubos,
    The whole idea of being able to say “I know a martial arts style invented in Slovakia” is too fun of an opportunity for me to pass up. I just received those two books I mentioned. They look like they’ll be good.
    Allan

  • Mark,
    Thank you for that connection. After you mentioned this, I ran into Hvorecky at an event in Bratislava and had a chance to chat with him a little about the Krav Maga/Lichtenfeld/Danube in America connection last week. If I recall correctly, he mentioned that a documentary about the Pentcho is being worked on in Slovakia right now.

    In addition to that, it sounds like this translation that you are working on is really making progress. I look forward to reading your translation of Danube in America and I hope to be one of the first reviewers for the new book when it comes out.

    Allan

  • Nick,
    Sounds like a good plan.
    Allan

  • Nick Y.,
    Good idea – it’ll be good for you safety and will be a fun Slovak cultural activity.
    Allan

  • one important detail guys. krav maga is not martial art it is combat system. kida.

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