The Co-founder of Krav Maga You May Not Know

Updated: Jan 11

Everyone knows the name Imi Lichtenfeld. Why don’t we know about his childhood friend, Zalman Unreich On?

Imi Lichtenfeld, an Israeli martial artist, is known for being the founding father of Krav Maga, a self-defense system adopted by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and several other countries. Krav Maga means "contact combat” in Hebrew. Krav Maga combines techniques from boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu into a fighting discipline.

Development of Krav Maga

Imi was inspired to develop Krav Maga based on his experience during his early years, with his friends, David and Zalman Unreich, protecting the Jewish community against antisemitic riots in Bratislava, Slovakia. For more details, please read Zalman was determined not to be beaten again blog post.

In the 1940’s, Imi fled Bratislava, heading for Israel and joining his Slovak colleagues, including Zalman who was already a respected member of the Haganah. In Israel, as a member of the Haganah, Imi perfected the art of Krav Maga and began teaching it to his colleagues and students.

Thus, Imi is the esteemed founding father of Krav Maga. But what if he had other co-founders as well? I believe that Zalman, his brother David, and the rest of the Unreich family deserve some credit for their contributions to the development of Krav Maga.

Enclosed below are links to Zalman’s reflections on wrestling, which make interesting reading, especially if you read German or Czech.

Wrestling or Jiu-jitsu like sports is not just a game; a wrestler has duties and rights towards his opponent and to the community."


For example, he treated it as far more than a sport, almost as a philosophy:

“Wrestling is the best medium to strengthen and heal the body."

"Abstinence from alcoholic and sexual indulgence is essential, in order to attain the highest degree of mental and physical strength. One’s opponent is not a machine but an intelligent being; to win demands quick decision-making. The art of self-defense trains both the body and the mind. Wrestling is not just a physical activity; it is a test of will, an uninterrupted, intense mental activity, testing the opponent, unfolding and exchanging physical and mental capacities."

"The more that a sport challenges our sharpness, the more it captures our entire person. It enables us to have mastery over our feelings, so that they will accomplish anything we demand from them."

While these manuscripts touch on Zalman's self-defense philosophy, his soon to be published new translated writings, contain some surprising descriptions of (1) who can and how to perform the martial arts of jiu jitsu; and (2) his opinion on forbidden grip techniques that are illegal in professional wrestling matches.

Before Imi arrived in Palestine, Zalman by this time was acknowledged as a master in the Jewish wrestling community, known both for his prowess in the ring and his skill in training young Jewish fighters. In Israel, Zalman’s training club acted as a magnet for some of the leading athletes in the country. Zalman trained both men and women who demonstrated ambition and commitment. Training with them, he felt himself growing fitter and stronger than ever. By 1935, when the second International Maccabi games were held in Tel Aviv, Zalman was entered in the Heavyweight class. He won the gold medal.

Perhaps during a more tranquil times Zalman may have managed to construct a one dimensional lifetime career in the military for himself. Maybe even focusing solely on sports, as a fighter, trainer, referee and possibly even one day as a pundit or manager. But Zalman didn’t live in such times and Israel's leadership needed his talents elsewhere, much as he enjoyed wrestling, he knew he had to subdue his passion in favor of more pressing matters.

Content Notes

As a professional athlete, Zalman understood first-hand the art of wrestling, but he also became involved in the management and administrative side of youth sports and education. Indeed, a 1933/34 document translated from Czech, identified Zalman's (known as Sigmund) involvement in the cost management and proposal preparation to the Social Committee of the Prague Jewish Council, encouraging them to invest more in the young Jewish generation. Even then, the investment by the public school system in Jewish students was insufficient. In order to prepare Jewish youth, more investment was necessary to help them enter institutions of higher education. They attempted to demonstrate this point by showing the disparity in cost between Jewish and non-Jewish youth in different institutions of higher education. These organizations included Jewish youth and student clubs, just like the Športový Klub (ŠK) Makkabea.