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Krav Maga the Lasting Legacy of Slovak Jewish Heroes

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

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:

  1. Was One Individual Responsible for Leading the Jewish Defense Against Antisemitic Attacks?

  2. Do the Origins of Krav Maga Have Written Evidence?

  3. What About Other Jewish Slovak Athletes?

  4. Who Helped Recruit Imi to the Haganah?

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.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides several definitions for the term “hero.” As Prof. Sven-Ole Andersen notes, the definitions can easily be applied to these Slovak Jewish leaders.

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...