Today is Yom Hashoah, the memorial for the 6 million Jewish people murdered, and for the survivors who endured unspeakable suffering and terrible loss. The Holocaust was systemized state-terror bent on destroying everything Jewish. To put it in perspective, half of the Jews in Europe and one-third of Jews overall in the entire world were murdered within six years. The survivors were stripped of their citizenship and property, hunted, dehumanized, enslaved and tortured. I’m struggling to find words to even explain, but it is beyond imagining.
If you look at Jewish history, it was the biggest massacre in history. However, it wasn’t the first.
From ancient times, Jews have been persecuted. We read about the Moabite and Assyrians attacking the Jews in the Bible, the Romans destroying Judea in 70AD and then two millennia of oppression that could fill a very long book. The expulsions from Spain, the 1648 Cossack riots, but I want to narrow it down to the thirty-five years before our Grandmaster Imi Sde-Or developed Krav Maga. This isn’t a complete list, but just what I found online.
- Kishinev Pogroms, Russia, 1903 49 Jews murdered and many more wounded. ( https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-kishinev-pogrom-1903)
- Kyiv Pogrom, Russia, 1905, 100 Jews murdered and many more wounded. (S.N. Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland from the Earliest Times Until the Present Day, trans. I. Friedlander, vol.2 (Philadelphia, 1920; repr., New York, 1972), p.128.
- Yekaterinoslav Pogrom, Russia, 1905. 66 Jews murdered, 125 were wounded and Jewish properties were looted. ( https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=283)
- Casablanca pogrom, Morocco, 1907-60 Jews murdered, many more women and children were enslaved. (Fenton, Paul (5 May 2016). Exile in the Maghreb: Jews under Islam, Sources and Documents, 997–1912. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 508)
- Shiraz Blood Libel, Iran, 1910-2 Jews murdered, more than 50 wounded, and 6,000 Jews were robbed of their property. (Outcaste (RLE Iran D): Jewish Life in Southern Iran By Laurence D Loeb, page 33)
- Fez Massacre in Morocco, 1912, 42 Jews murdered and many more wounded. ( Mohammed Kenbib. “Fez Riots (1912).” Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online, 2014)
- The mass murder of Mountain Jews, Russia, 1918, estimates up to 10,000 Jews were murdered and many more wounded. (https://www.jpost.com/Blogs/Think-With-Me/We-must-not-shun-from-the-1918-genocide-in-Azerbaijan-547840 and https://www.jstor.org/stable/1520272?seq=1)
- Russian Civil War, 1919–1921, close to 250,000 Jews murdered in Russian and close to 70,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine, along with countless more wounded. Two major massacres included the February 1919 murder of 1500 Jews in the city of Proskerov, and the March 1919 murder of 4,000 Jews. ( Encyclopaedia Judaica, second edition, vol. 20, p. 244)
- Hebron Massacre, British Mandate, 1929, 69 Jews murdered and 58 more were wounded. Another 20 were murdered in Tzfat (https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/1929-hebron-massacre-begins-1.5427655)
Historically, that puts us in the time of Grandmaster Imi Sde-Or, a talented athlete who lived in the city of Bratislava, in Eastern Europe. During the 1930s, Nazism and fascism had started the message that Jews were the enemy. Anti-Semitic mobs began rioting in Jewish communities. The police were doing nothing to help and people were afraid to leave their homes. Imi responded by proactively organizing athletes to help Jews defend themselves. He created Krav Maga during one of the darkest times in history because he was no longer going to passively endure abuse.
During World War II, Imi escaped out of Europe on one of the last boats that made it to the British Mandate. 77% of the Jews of his city of Bratislava were murdered by the Nazis. This included his own parents, Samuel and Channa. As his father was one of seven children, Imi lost many of his cousins, as well as countless neighbors and friends. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering Imi felt to lose that many loved ones. I try to imagine losing even one member of my family and my heart breaks. To lose them all is devastating beyond any words.
Imi refused to fall into despair. He turned that pain into the development of Krav Maga. In memory of his lost loved ones, he spent the rest of his life teaching self-defense in the most efficient way possible. Imi wanted every person, man, woman, and child, young and old, to be able to defend themselves. He worked to constantly improve and evolve Krav Maga, so it would be as effective as possible.
In the face of death and horror, Imi chose life and empowerment. He channeled tragedy into making the world a better place. He was a leader who taught other teachers and encouraged them to travel the world and spread the teaching.
Today, thousands of people of all ages and cultures and religions and countries learn the discipline he developed. People from all over the world have used the skills to be safer and happier. That gives us a lot of strength to continue his work, and keep teaching Krav Maga. It’s how he would have responded to this, and history proved, his approach was right.
A few stops from Krav Maga Experts in Union Square, there is a Holocaust Memorial Museum. Outside is a cattle-car, one of the ones used to transport innocent Jews to their deaths. Had I been born a few decades earlier, that would have been the way I or my loved ones would have been murdered. Inside that museum are Torah scrolls, which were collected by the Nazis to be put in a museum for “exterminated people” because there would be no Jews left.
However, history was changed forever. At Krav Maga Experts, there is a sign above the door to the classroom. “Krav Maga-Saving Lives since 1948.” As a former soldier of the Israeli Defense Force, it gives me a lot of pride to know that the list I gave you at the beginning of the post stops in 1948.
Jewish civilians would never again be dragged out of their homes by racist governments and murdered. While Jews did endure suffering in the Soviet Union and the Arab world, they had the hope of an army now. They knew that people would work to defend them and they weren’t abandoned to die whenever bigots decided to start killing them.
Imi was not able to save his own family, but the Jews of the world are safe because of the training he developed for the army. In fact, the entire world is safer because of him. I personally know many stories of people who used Krav Maga to save lives, and there are so many more I don’t know.
I can’t imagine a better way to mark today than to celebrate life and courage, by working to make the world a better and safer place. Take dark times full of pain and use it as inspiration to work harder. Remember the dead by fighting harder for the living.
Never again. Let’s work to a world to make that true for everyone.
Next week, I’ll be posting the follow-up for this entry, for Israel Independence Day. Stay tuned, the story has a great ending.