Updated: May 2
Designed in Bratislava, made in Israel, and shipped worldwide. A story of friends, protectors, and community. Krav Maga also known as "close combat" is Israel's martial-art system or practice of self-defense. However components of its origins are from Czechoslovakia, in the city of Bratislava. Bratislava is no longer in Czechoslovakia, after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain it became the capital of the newly independent state of Slovakia. It was in neither Czechoslovakia nor Slovakia when Krav Maga was originally designed. This article is about recognizing contributions and uncovering material that hasn't been written about before to help trace its origins.
In this post, we help answer the following frequently asked question:
In a recent publication, Sven-Ole Andersen, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico, describes the transformation of Imi Lichtenfeld and David Unreich from athletes to fighters against antisemitic and fascist attacks in Slovakia, and on to advocates of fair treatment and the protection of Jewish people across the globe in the early 20th century.
Check out Prof. Andersen’s publication: “From Kaiserschmarrn & Sports to Krav Maga: How Political Circumstances and Fascist Terror led to the Creation of a Jewish Hero and his Lasting Legacy”, in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies XXXIII (2020): 118-139.
Was One Individual Responsible for Leading the Jewish Defense Against Antisemitic Attacks?
A 2018 article published in The Slovak Spectator told us what we already knew: that the creators of the Krav Maga self-defense system were from Bratislava. As violence against the Jews began to spread, Imi Lichtenfeld and his friends established a defense group to protect their local Jewish community. The three friends stood up against Jewish hate on a number of occasions, each perhaps leading the fight at different times. Here are two under-reported historical events that took place in the 1930s, but were reported in separate interviews with the other members.
A Yiddish newspaper article about David Unreich from the late 1930s describes the events that happened in Bratislava in the early 1920s. The article, entitled "In those so-called wars with antisemitic students, David Unreich showed great loyalty," explains that while studying at the famous Pressburg Yeshiva in Bratislava, “a fearful incitement” took place against Jewish students. The Christian student body of Pressburg called for the introduction of laws that would limit the number of Jewish students. The organization was concerned about the number of Jewish students fleeing nearby Poland and entering local schools. The article reports that David was about 12 years old when he attended the Yeshiva and studied there for about five years. The incident must therefore have taken place between 1919 and 1926.
The article adds that the Jewish youth received a beating, but did not fight back. David Unreich withdrew from the school and quietly organized a Jewish self-defense group called the Maccabi Sports Club. He “straightened bones and backs” so that he could return blows whenever the enemy attacked Jewish students in the future. Although the article doesn’t mention his brother Zalman or best friend Imi Lichtenfeld, we know that they built the Maccabi Sports Club together. They would become “defenders” in the Jewish quarter to protect Jewish students from the pogroms and attacks perpetrated by Christian students.
The eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a day when Jews fast, pray, look back on their past deeds, seek forgiveness for their sins, and resolve to do better in future.
In another account, the “shomrim” vigilante group began on this somber day. Riots broke out which substantially shaped the direction of our three heroes’ lives. The year was either 1928 or 1929.
These events are further described in a newspaper cutting on the front page of an Israeli daily paper with a title that translates as Sports News. The article (below in Hebrew) is dated Tuesday 8th December, 1959, and an entire page is devoted to Zalman and his colleagues describing the events of that day. “The European Champion Who Rescued Holy Objects” proclaims the headline: “Zalman Unreich: The Outstanding Wrestler, Fighting all his Life for the Protection and Rescue of Jews.” The headline does not surprise us now!
Thanks to the amazing Laura Fischer, we found an article that seems to confirm the events of more likely happening in 1929. On page 176 it says: "Such events included, for instance, the anti-Jewish student demonstrations in autumn 1929 among German students in Prague, which spread to Bratislava. Slovak's did not simply report on the events, but it took sides with the demonstrators."
This photo below shows our three Jewish Slovak heroes at the time, posing with a group of other young people: twelve men and one woman. The photographer has arranged them in three lines. Five stand at the back, four are seated in front of them, and two crouch in the foreground. The man in the prime seat, in the center of the middle row, is older than the others and holds a pennant.
The writing on the pennant is written in a white script even on the white half of the pennant, but the top line is clear enough. It says: “S.K. Makkabea, Bratislava.” The people in the photo are members of the Bratislavan branch of the Maccabi federation of Jewish youth clubs, an association that encourages young people around the world to participate and compete in sporting activities. This is the earliest known photo of the members from the “defenders of the community.”
What really makes this picture stand out is David Unreich, stands in the top row on the right, wearing glasses. One of the two crouching figures at the front is Imi Lichtenfeld. In the second row, second person from the left is Zalman Unreich. He looks about fifteen or sixteen and has a bandage wrapped around his head tied so that it completely covers his right eye. Behind him a young man holds a walking stick. Their injuries might have little meaning; they were all members of a sports club. But they might have been the results of the battles the heroes fought.
Do the Origins of Krav Maga Have Written Evidence?
In a 2019 research publication, “History and Singularity of Krav-Maga,” Dr. Guy Mor writes: "Despite the growing popularity of Krav-Maga, we are not aware of any scholarly research into the origins, distinctive characteristics and historical development of the discipline.” Until recently, those origins were often overlooked and understudied.
Imi Lichtenfeld should fully be credited for making Krav Maga popular and for building it in Israel, but it's also important to note other influences and contributions to the discipline. KAPAP, for example, a Hebrew acronym for "Krav Panim el Panim" (face-to-face combat), was the term used for the military training program in the early days of the IDF before Krav Maga officially took off.
Furthermore in the 1920s, when the Haganah known as the "Israel Defense Force" was established, immigrants like Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais helped contribute to the various forums of the combat training discipline, plus many more Jewish settlers dating to the 1930s.
Photo above contains the unsung KAPAP Haganah members in then Palestine today Israel, late 1930s. From left is Zalman Unreich On embraced by Israel Carmi (inspiration for Inglourious Basterds 2009 movie) and on the far right possibly is Gershon Kopler. Source: Zalman Unreich On collection
In this December 1944 article called the “Wrestler” it mentions Zalman Unreich On as the one who contributed the most to the Greco-Roman Wrestling in Israel and the impact of Jiu-Jitsu. Keep reading there's more...
Furthermore, unpublished manuscripts by Zalman (Sidney) Unreich, one of the original Krav Maga legends, have recently been transliterated from German. Imi Lichtenfeld began to incorporate these techniques from different styles to form an effective approach to self-protection known as Krav Maga. The following documents unlock and detail the philosophy, origins, and techniques of the arts of wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu.
“Wrestling, boxing or Jiu-jitsu like sports is not just a game; an athlete has duties and rights towards his opponent and to the community." -Zalman Unreich On
Here are the original, transliterated and unpublished wrestling manuscripts till now:
Original Full Manuscript Notes in German
In the first page of this twenty-four page manuscript ("Geleitwort"), there's many key sentences making it very clear, Jiu-Jitsu was meant to be a part of the broader ideology of "Muscular Judaism", today known as Krav Maga. Although Muscular Judaism was an idea practiced mostly by Jewish men, Jewish women participated as well, especially in activities such as gymnastics.
Although it's not said in these exact words, we can imply from the writing "for a nation that till now focused (with a word play on "heavy weight") mainly on its spiritual development it's even far greater importance" to focus on mental and physical strength to achieve the goals of Zionism.
It’s assumed Zalman wrote this for the Czechoslovakia Maccabi movement or possibly for the German Maccabi team participating in the 1932 Maccabiah Games.
Here is a short summary of the first half of the document, as the remaining parts are being transliterated.
This essay was written to publicize Jiu-Jitsu. The author emphasizes the importance of such sport and martial arts for the Jewish people, more commonly known in those days for its spiritual education and qualification.
The author goes forward to explain the course of instruction for Jiu-Jitsu – which methods, practices, etc., are being used. Some safety instructions, for example, regarding the danger of a heart attack, are being mentioned as well.
Who can practice Jiu-Jitsu?
One point that’s very clear at the beginning: men and women (or boys and girls) are the same for this purpose, and the author knows of no significant differences between the sexes, “even if the woman must occasionally interrupt her training".
According to the text, the healthiness of the beginner fighter – both physical and mental – is essential. Yet not every person who seems to be in good shape and health is also suitable to practice Jiu-Jitsu. And one must be prepared for disappointments. Some people might be physically imperfect yet excellent Jiu-Jitsu fighters. And on the other side, some people might have the best physical health but prove themselves ineligible if they don’t possess the essential spiritual characteristics. For example:
Only people with clear and positive morality and ethics should get the dangerous weapon of martial art such as jiu-jitsu.
Serenity and calmness are human requirements.
That’s also why jiu-jitsu is not for people who did not show the required mental development.
Children should not begin too early with Jiu-Jitsu. After their 12th birthday, one might consider it but also with great caution.
The author continues by emphasizing the importance of the combination between body and soul in jiu-jitsu. It’s only with both that one can practice jiu-jitsu successfully.
There’s a part about "Ringen", also known as the jiu-jitsu and wrestling ring rules and regulations. The text describes the rationale behind the need to decide a winner and a loser.
Vegetables, fruits, salads, etc., are crucial, fat in small portions is also good, for example, a good butter the author says. Drinking is also essential, and one should overestimate the milk: good water is the best thing that nature has given us.
Moderation and Exercise Restraint
The worst enemy of the fighter is self-gratification. One must fight it with all his energy, according to the author.
The remaining chapters cover topics of proper athletic attire, massage therapy for both male and female athletes, discouraging cigarette smoking, incorporating adequate rest between training sessions, Jiu-Jitsu guidelines and at last the history of martial art are summarized from its beginning at the antiquity.
Original Full Manuscript Notes in German About Illegal Grips
Original Vorwort Wrestling Notes in German
Transliterated in English Vorwort Wrestling Notes
Geleitwort Wrestling Notes In German
Transliterated Geleitwort in English Wrestling Notes
Uprising Wrestling Notes in German
Transliterated Uprising in English Wrestling Notes
Note: mentions Imi Lichtenfeld and his father's famous historic wrestling wins.
Ringer Wrestling Notes in German
Transliterated Ringer in English Wrestling Notes
Wrestling Competition Note in German
What About Other Jewish Slovak Athletes?
Scholarly articles often publish research crediting mainly the principal author and other contributors to their publication. In addition to sharing the numerous and multiple sources about our three main Slovak heroes, it's important to acknowledge the stories that we know of other Bratislava athletes from this infamous team and their contributions.
For example, the remarkable story of Jonas Eckstein "Wrestling One's Way Out of the Holocaust."And other equally incredibly talented athletes such as Daniel Frommer, who listed Zalman as his point of contact when he applied to the British for permission to remain in Palestine in 1944. Unfortunately, Daniel’s oldest brother, Arpad also was a gifted wrestler and part of the Zalman’s wrestling team in Czechoslovakia. Sadly, Arpad Frommer was taken by the Nazis in 1939 and never seen again.
Tibor and Ernö Fuchs were excellent athletes and belonged to the Bar Kochba Jewish Sports Club. They were recognized as national gymnastics champions of Czechoslovakia. They were also among the first pupils of Imi Lichtenfeld. They assisted Mr. Lichtenfeld in developing many of the skills that Lichtenfeld eventually incorporated into the hand-to-hand combat system that is used by the Israeli Army.
One of the most famous Slovaks from this "motely crew" are Tibor (Tom) and Ernö (Ernest) Kövári Kovary. They're known as the two boys "From Street Fights to Secret Intelligence: Jewish Brothers Who Fought Back against the Nazis."
Who Helped Recruit Imi to the Haganah?
When Imi Lichtenfeld immigrated to the British Mandate Palestine, today Israel, in the autumn of 1942, he was recruited into the Haganah (pre-State of Israel Defense Forces) with the help of his best friends from Bratislava and others. Imi showcased his talents in wrestling competitions lead and coached by his friend Zalman Unreich. Enclosed are two rare articles from 1943 and 1944 uncovering important details from this transition period prior to him becoming a full fledged instructor of what we know today as Krav Maga.
March 12, 1943 Article in Hebrew
April 18, 1944 Article in Hebrew
The University Library in Bratislava: http://digitalna.kniznica.info/browse
B’nai B’rith European Day of Jewish Culture Exhbit: https://www.bnaibritheurope.org/edjc-in-slovakia-2018/
Dennik Newspaper Article 2016: https://dennikn.sk/421435/david-unreich-bratislavsky-zapasnicky-sampion-ktory-vyzval-suboj-hitlera/
Maccabiah Games before World War II: https://sport-record.de/organizations/maccabiah.html
Patrick Comperford Online Journal : http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2019/12/hidden-stories-of-jewish-bratislava-6.html
Kovary and Neuhaus Families Papers: https://collections.ushmm.org/findingaids/2009.364.15_01_fnd_en.pdf
Krav Maga Ostrava History Page: https://www.kravmaga-ostrava.cz/o-nas/imi-lichtenfeld-sde-or/
Unreich Family Legacy website: https://www.unreich.org/
Copyright and Citation
Everything in this site falls under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. The project can be cited as:
David M. Baron, Krav Maga Founders: “Zalman Unreich On Art of Wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu Notes”
Tremendous gratitude and thanks goes to the amazing Dr. Yuval Rubovitch for his assistance with this part of the project.