Thursday, January 6, 2011


It was the 8th of January and it must’ve been a cold night in Netanya (Israel). An old man was lying in bed, wrapped in quilts and sheets. There were people surrounding the bed and the mood was somber and grave. There was something vigorous about the old man even as he lay there in bed. The liquid grey eyes looked tired under the rugged brow but the rest of him lay there like a coiled spring, like a big cat in repose. The broad shoulders, the strong chin and those gnarled fingers that looked like digits you wouldn’t want wrapped around your neck or wrist, all seemed to suggest a man of great but contained strength, but those tired grey eyes were at peace with the world around them. As the night wore on, tired heads leaned against the wall and nodded off into a disturbed sleep while others wearily walked into an adjoining room waiting for first light… any light.

The old man closed his eyes and smiled a half smile. The room had become a little stuffy and someone opened a window to let in some fresh air. The salty breeze wafted in from the Mediterranean and reminded the old man of a day nearly 60 years ago…

The Pentcho was no ocean-liner. It was an old riverboat that was being tossed along the waves like an old haggard lion that had been surrounded by a herd of wild buffalo and was being passed on from one angry pair of horns to another. It was a long way from home and a young man stood on the deck and held on to the railing, drenched in the salt and the spray, thinking of the home he had left far behind. There were friends and family and the streets and stores he had known since he was a child that he knew he would never see again. It was a land he had loved but that land had betrayed him and driven him away.

The time was 1940 and Europe was in the eye of an evil storm. Anti-Jewish sentiments whipped up by Nazis, Fascists and their supporters across Europe had resulted in incarcerations, mob violence and mass murders that left Jewish communities across Europe feeling vulnerable and violated. He was reminded of his father who had been a police officer in his native Bratislava, in Slovakia. He had taught him how to wrestle and how to box and how to walk with dignity. He thought of the numerous wrestling tournaments he had won, the plays and the ballets on stage and the thunderous roar of the crowd that always seemed to follow him. But now it was all gone. The roar of the crowds had been replaced by the baying of a mob. The very people who had clapped for him now stood in corners, armed with clubs and knives, waiting for him or any of his people. The police and the anti-Semitic mobs hounded him and his community like wolves and he remembered patrolling the block with his friends, rescuing those who were attacked, fighting and defending his people against these marauders.

He realised that fighting on the streets against armed assailants was a world away from fighting in competitions. He fought hard but knew he couldn’t fight for everybody. Therefore, he started teaching those who would learn how to defend themselves. He realised that the weak and old people needed to learn how to protect themselves far more than the strong. So, he modified his techniques, made them simple and based them on natural human instincts and normal everyday movements which were easy to learn and more importantly, remember and repeat when under attack. For a while the resistance stood firm but later it all went out of hand. In fact, when the local administration and the army got involved in the persecution of the Jews, the community was left with no choice but to leave. Many left when they could while some found it difficult to tear themselves away from their homes. He was amongst the last to leave on the Pentcho, one of the last boats to leave the coast of Europe, packed to the brim with Jews desperately hoping to escape the toxic shadow of the Holocaust before it consumed the continent.

Lying in his bed all these years later, he was reminded of that day when he had left his home with nothing but the wet shirt on his back and headed for the Promised Land. Here in Israel, he became a hero. His brilliant martial abilities and perceptive skills as a teacher endeared him to the Israeli Defense Forces where he became Chief Instructor. He trained the new nation’s greatest soldiers and laid foundation for Israel’s national security. But his greatest gift to the world was yet to come. Aft er retiring from duty he started teaching civilians the art of self defence as he had come to know it. He called it Krav Maga (Contact Combat).

For 88 years, he had fought opponents in the ring, fascists on the streets and fate on the boat but he did it all so that “one could walk in peace”. And on January 9, 1998, he was at peace, with his past, his world and his life. He sighed a long deep sigh, held the hand closest to him and gently let go. Imi Lichtenfeld, champion wrestler, Jewish resistance fighter, a pillar of Israeli society and the creator of Krav Maga breathed his last exactly 13 years ago but his martial moves and philosophy have left behind a legacy that has made the world a safer place.

Sky marshals on planes, commandos in battle, law enforcement officers from New York to New Delhi and civilians like you and me walk in peace today because of Imi Lichtenfeld. I walked into a Krav Maga training centre three years ago and had the opportunity to learn from masters that had been trained by Grandmaster Imi himself. I have seen wimpy boys and delicate ladies transform into bold and confident urban warriors who know how to take care of themselves and their loved ones with a calm courage in the face of daunting odds.

On this New Year’s day, when I read about a 17-year-old being raped and murdered, her face smashed beyond recognition, I know that more oft en than not, it is a crime that could have been prevented. Six months of Krav Maga and most girls would be too hot to handle for an aspiring rapist. This New Year, I hope and wish for you lives in the lap of love and peace, but if you ever need to raise an arm to protest or protect, I hope you would have tried a little Krav Maga… for there’s nothing quite like it to help you walk in peace.


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