Remembering Mitzi Trachtenberg, an artist and political activist who opened her home to all

Mitzi, who had five children including triplets, had a home filled with a huge cast of characters who found joy by being in each other’s company.

One year ago (Feb. 8, 2020), right before the world started spinning backward, Mitzi Trachtenberg (née Tyrnauer) took her last breath surrounded by her children, their partners and many of her grandchildren. She was 90. “Mitz,” always one for drama and good lighting, passed away with a full moon illuminating a wildly windy Bay Area night. Her loved ones imagined that they’d have a memorial service for her and publish her obit but events intruded. Here we are a year later.

Born in Pittsburgh, PA, on Nov. 29, 1929, a month after the start of the great depression, Mitzi’s father, a traveling clothes salesman, was the only man in the extended family with a steady income. As was common during the depression, Mitzi’s family opened their home to two other families and thus seven cousins and their five parents ended up living under one roof together for nearly a decade. The house was a perpetual party and the stage for a nightly parade of mostly Austro-Hungarian Jews — musicians, cooks, peddlers, actors and agitators.

Mitzi studied art and design at Carnegie Tech which laid the groundwork for her lifelong passion for art and interior design. She was well known for her tendency to enter a home (or a restaurant) and immediately start rearranging the seating, the lighting and the artwork.

Mitzi met her future husband Allen Trachtenberg while working in a Jewish summer camp.  Within a few weeks, they knew they wanted to marry. The young couple was quickly blessed with a boy and then a girl. But Mitzi’s third pregnancy was progressing strangely — by her fifth month, she was huge! Triplets, said the doctor. Mitzi carried the triplets into her ninth month and gave birth to three babies. The family of four was suddenly a family of seven with five kids under 6 years old. In 1958 this was front-page news. Baby food and (cloth) diapers were donated by local companies. Though Allen was away from home almost half of the month due to his work as a traveling salesman, Mitzi carried on as only Mitzi could. Even with five kids underfoot, she never stopped producing her artwork and, astonishingly, she had a solo museum show when the triplets were just 3 years old.

Mitzi’s adult home, like that of her depression-era childhood, was filled with a huge cast of characters who found nourishment and joy simply by being in each other’s company.  Mitzi and Allen (it’s difficult to speak of one without the other) had an extraordinary ability to make people feel welcome and to feel valued, and many of her kids’ friends developed a lifelong sense of kinship to Mitzi and Allen.

Mitzi and Allen’s mutual commitment to social justice was threaded through their 62-year marriage. In the early ’60s, jolted by the work of the Freedom Riders in the segregated South, Mitzi co-founded the Pittsburgh branch of The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) which included the NAACP, SNCC and CORE. for which she received an award from the NAACP.  She joined the March on Washington in 1963 with her older children in tow, and in 1969 she took a bus to Washington, D.C., (with her 16-year-old son) to join the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstrations. After school, her children were often along for door-knocking and voter registration drives across Pittsburgh. In the late ’60s and into the ’70s her family was deeply immersed in the United Farmworkers movement. In the late ’60s, Pittsburgh was the only city in America where one could not buy California-grown table grapes.

Mitzi traveled extensively with Allen to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Europe, Mexico and Central America where they engaged deeply with locals, learning their histories and sometimes becoming advocates for their causes.

Mitzi and Allen spent the last two decades of their lives in Berkeley where they became embedded in the life of the town. They reveled in the many pleasures Berkeley offered them and were devotees of the Cheese Board, Masse’s Pastries, Saul’s Deli, Chez Panisse, the Berkeley Rep and their daily walks in Cesar Chavez Park.

Mitzi loved to say that she was the luckiest woman in the world. Her family often joked that if they could reproduce her brain chemistry they’d all be rich. The center of the universe for several generations of devoted friends, beloved cousins, nieces, nephews and in-laws, she is survived by her five children Larry (Ingrid Henningsson), Amy (Jeffrey Miller), Julie, Robert (Catherine Lazio) and David (Elizabeth); and her eight grandchildren, Daniel and Emma (London); Leo and Nathan Miller (Brooklyn); Gaetano, Rose and Mia (Berkeley); and Sam (Providence); and her brother Gene Tyburn. She is pre-deceased by her beloved Allen and her brother Herb Tyrnauer and Martin and Freda Tyrnauer, her parents.

Donations can be made to the ACLU.

A memorial gathering will be held post-COVID-19.