“I began fighting anti-Semitism in the ’30s. When the Hitler youth gangs used to single out Jewish young men on the streets, it was either hit or run. I found the hitting more satisfying.” — Imi Lichtenfeld, interview in People Magazine
It's an odd thing in today's world to find a treasure. You'd hear many stories - back in the day - of people digging in a yard and striking gold, oil, or whatever type of special find could boggle the imagination. However, it can't happen in the modern world. Or can it?
There's a treasure in Warminster, Bucks County. Oddly, it's in a strip mall and has a large sign out front. To call it a martial arts school might be a bit limiting. It does more than just teach self-defense. The school passes on a unique tradition and history that's ever important in our time today.
Bucks County Krav Maga has a unique lineage, stretching through members to the martial art's founder in World War II. Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga, was in his twenties when Hitler and his cronies rose to power. The fanaticism bled over from Germany to Imi's home of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.
Kevin Mack, head instructor of Bucks County Krav Maga, explains Imi was a natural athlete who competed in Olympic level boxing and wrestling. Plus, his father was a police inspector with experience in martial arts. So, when his fellow Jews in his homeland were threatened by pro-Nazi groups, Imi organized Jewish athletes into a defense force.
Imi learned immediately what fighting tactics worked in the real world. In particular, he found ways to fight multiple people at one time. Even as his skills honed, he knew his fists couldn't stop tanks and machine guns. Imi eventually left his home with other Jews. In 1940 Imi and 513 other Jews loaded themselves on a dilapidated paddle boat meant for 200 called the Pentcho.
John Bierman’s book Odyssey explains the escaping Jews intended to use this river boat to get them down the Danube, through the Black Sea, to the Aegean, and eventually across the ocean to British-occupied Palestine. It was a suicide mission, and all aboard knew it. This "little ship of death" had no chance.
After countless disasters Imi found himself in a free Czech military unit fighting against the Nazis in North Africa. He'd eventually make it to the future Israel by 1942. The authorities there used his experience.
He’d become the chief instructor for physical training and self-defense for the new state of Israel in 1948. The self-defense used by the army became known as Krav Maga, which means contact combat.
“What I was teaching was a unique combination of judo, karate, akido, kungfu and boxing.” — Imi Lichtenfeld, interview in People Magazine
Krav Maga Comes To Philadelphia
That's far off from Warminster in present day Bucks County, but Kevin explains the close link to Imi. His instructor Alan Feldman was one of the first Americans to be accepted in a Krav Maga training program designed to spread the martial art to America. Alan learned directly from Imi and his students.
In fact, Kevin says Alan started the first full-time Krav school in America right in Philadelphia. It's shocking to think this unique history sits so close to home. Kevin also says Imi - in his 70's - came to visit Alan's school.
Kevin still keeps a picture of Imi up towards the front of the school. Other than that, the school looks relatively modern. For the most part, it doesn't resemble your traditional dojo in any way. Cool blue and grey color schemes coat the interior, plus there's a set of special pads on the walls. Kevin mentions they use these for more realistic drills where students literally fight their way off a wall.
The school is relatively laid back with a loose uniform standard. The atmosphere is lighthearted and fun. While there's a good mix of newcomers, some in the class have been training with Kevin for years. These advanced students cheerfully help the newbies.
It isn't long before you meet Bill. The former marine vet and long-time Krav practitioner shows a newcomer a way to add more force to a wrist lock by a simple arm movement. He adds to the curriculum with his long-time experience as a bouncer. He also reflects the easy atmosphere making jokes at his own expense as he shows quick ways to deal out pain and escape from bad situations.
As class starts, you soon realize the easy atmosphere stretches over to the Krav Maga system itself. They teach simple moves to deal with complex situations. Kevin mentions Alan always stressed trying to use one movement to solve many problems.
Furthermore, it isn't long before you see the training weapons. It's not the stuff you'd expect at a martial arts club - no swords or nun chucks. I immediately spy handguns, knives, and a training AK-47. According to Kevin, Krav Maga's true purpose is dealing with realistic events. You're more likely to see a gun or knife than a sword.
The Past Revisits The Present
After hearing the history of the martial art and seeing their training methods, it didn't take long to see the parallels between today and Imi's time at Bratislava. In our day Jews have been attacked on the streets, just like a previous age. Other groups have also had their run ins with hate. It's also a time when crime is on the rise in general.
Kevin speaks with a special passion for teaching the defenseless to protect themselves. He mentions growing up with an abusive father, in addition to running into skinheads during his time in the punk scene. Kevin has arranged charity events for women's shelters and had special training events for the Jewish community.
Perhaps "community" is the best way to describe his school. After class, Kevin points up to a wall in front of the room to something I missed. A set of stenciled letters says, "so that one may walk in peace". He explains those were the words of Imi. He developed Krav Maga so those in his community could "walk in peace".
Now, Kevin continues the effort. Despite the light atmosphere and modern colors, the mission started by Imi over 80 years ago hasn't changed.
Bucks County Krav Maga is a place the local community can train, so that they may walk in peace. It's truly a hidden treasure, right in Bucks County. History, self-defense, and community exists all in one building.