Raz Chen

To the Lost Four Hundred

Supporting the World Jewish Congress's campaign (picture copyright owned by Raz Chen)
Supporting the World Jewish Congress's campaign (picture copyright owned by Raz Chen)

In the last few years, I’ve been privileged to study history with my co-writer, due to her impromptu lectures. I’ve learned a lot of interesting stories. Some stories have made me proud. Some stories have made me frustrated and sad.

The story I most recently learned made me feel all of those emotions at once. 

In the early 20th century, 20th-century, boxing was very popular in the Jewish community. I love the quote by historian Ben Braber  who said, boxing allowed young Jewish men “to build their self-esteem because the art of self-defense requires courage, stamina, quick reactions but also technical skills.” I think it is as true now as it was then and it is something that should be central in the Jewish community for both men and women. 

During that time, these clubs produced incredible boxers, like Ben Bril, one of the world’s greatest in the sport. During the early days of the Holocaust, He and his fellow Dutch Jewish athletes formed defense leagues to protect the Jewish communities from Nazis. These athletes armed themselves with improvised weapons like bricks and metal bars and fought to protect their families. During one such defense mission in February of 1941, these defenders even managed to push back the Brown Shirts enough that they managed to kill at least one. 

Determined to crush the hope inspired by these men, the Nazis rounded these men up and deported them to death camps. Most were murdered before the spring. Ben Bril was one of the only survivors. 

When I read the story, I thought of those nameless defenders who rose up and fought the most powerful army in Europe to protect their families. I was so proud of them. I mourned their loss but honored them as true heroes and warriors. 

As she concluded the story, my co-worker made an observation.  “You know those defenders are the lost generation of Israeli athletes?  We are only now just starting to make up the lost ground.”  

That thought was heartbreaking. I realized four hundred and many other defenders in other cities just like them should have been my father’s generation of coaches and athletes of Israel. They were the top athletes of their time. Who would they have been?

Some could have won medals for Israels. Some could have been the coaches in the 50s and 60s and 70s who would have nurtured the next generation of athletes. Some could have worked with Grandmaster Imi to improve Krav Maga. Others may have developed styles of their own. Many could have taught my own teachers, who would have taught me. I am not saying this to denigrate my incredible teachers, but I know they would have valued the chance to have added these master athletes to their instruction.  

They should have been the teachers and trainers of my own teachers. They should have been allowed to contribute to the world of combatives and sports. They should have been part of the great martial arts ecosystem created here in Israel. They had so much to give to their own people, and to the world of athletics at large. 

Instead, they died as warriors, protecting their people. They achieved the highest levels of combatives, becoming true heroes. They lived and died by the principles. With nothing more than improvised weapons and their own skills, they fought evil. 

There is no way for them to be buried in honor as warriors deserve to be. Their teachings were not able to be passed on. We don’t even have their names to inscribe on a wall.

Instead, I will honor them the way they should be celebrated. They were men of action and their monument will be in action. In every class I teach, and in every empowerment work I do, I am carrying out their example. I write this article as my tribute to them, who inspire me to work to empower people against hate and violence. I want to bring back the ideas they had, of self-defense being an integral part of the Jewish people. 

I know in my heart, that is the tombstone they would have wanted. It is my honor to help build it. 

To the Defenders. May you live eternally in the Jewish heart as our inspiration and courage! May your example never be forgotten.

About the Author
Raz Chen is an expert in Krav Maga, teaching in New York City, with multiple certifications from the Sports Academy in Israel, and Wingate Institute. A former special operations infantry combatant and Senior military Krav Maga instructor, Raz taught over 10,000 soldiers, including top special forces counter-terrorism and US Marines. He currently teaches classes and seminars for the army, police, and civilians on topics like counter-terrorism, rape prevention, Krav Maga instructor certification, Krav Maga combat, and fitness. He is the creator of AVIIR, a company dedicated to functional training, protection, regeneration, and longevity. Credit and gratitude to his co-writer and senior student Elke Weiss, whose research, writing, and editing are instrumental to this column and all my other writings.
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