MIR Spotlight: Joanna Millick

MIR Spotlight: Joanna Millick

I didn’t know who she was at the time, but I first met Joanna Millick in 2001 on a bus from the Warsaw airport to Krakow’s medieval Old Town. She was the funny and flirty guide standing at the front of the bus with a microphone, telling jokes and bragging about Poland like a stand-up comedian.

Meeting JoannaWe were all in a party mood. The MIR owners had surprised us with an end-of-the-year trip, taking the whole Seattle office to Poland. At the airport in Warsaw, we met up with our colleagues from Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia and boarded the tour bus. The owners had asked for the best guide in Warsaw, and Joanna was it. Though we were tired and jet-lagged, most of us stayed awake on that six-hour ride, passing the obligatory Slavic bottle of vodka and talking with Joanna and with each other. I believe some songs may have been sung.

Poland is a popular holiday destination, with Christmas markets filled with ornaments, food, and gifts <br>Photo credit: David W. Allen

Poland is a popular holiday destination, its Christmas markets filled with ornaments, food, and gifts
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Three years later, Joanna appeared in the Seattle office as our new colleague, putting together independent trips for travelers who didn’t want to join a group tour. She brought the same buoyant energy that we saw that night at the front of the bus to her clients and co-workers.

MIR's Joanna Millick often leads Christmastime tours to her homeland, Poland Photo credit: David W. Allen

MIR’s Joanna Millick often leads Christmastime tours to her homeland, Poland
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Growing Up Under Soviet RuleBorn and raised in Warsaw, the capital of a Soviet “satellite” country, Joanna was required to study Russian as well as her native Polish. As a kid growing up behind the Iron Curtain, she loved watching American sports and movies like “Rocky.” She was fascinated with America, and going to the USA became her dream. Going to the USA – and seeing Michael Jordan in action.

When she was 13, her parents got to know a Polish woman who worked at the U.S. Embassy, and Joanna began taking lessons from her every Saturday. Her tutor had taught herself English because, Joanna says, “she was in love with Elvis and wanted to know what he was singing. We learned simple past tense on ‘I gave a letter to the postman, he put it in his sack, bright and early next morning, he brought my letter back…’”

At 16, Joanna’s dream came true and she left Warsaw for a year in Utah as an exchange student. And she got to see Michael Jordan play against the Utah Jazz.

“He was fouled out, but I got to sit a couple rows behind Phil Jackson himself!”

Poland’s HolocaustWhen she was a little girl, before she began dreaming of going to the U.S., Joanna’s life was influenced in another way. Her grandfather lived in a small village east of Warsaw. He had a shoe store where the older men would congregate and reminisce. “Remember Moishe?” one of them would say and they would all nod and sigh. Half the population of her grandfather’s town had been Jewish. In her uncle’s front garden was a slab of concrete that Joanna learned was a forgotten monument to a group of local Jews who had been killed right there.

“That made me curious. In those days, nobody talked about what had happened to Poland’s Jews.”

Dubbed the "Gate of Death," where Jews were gassed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

The “Gate of Death,” through which trainloads of Jews entered the Birkenau extermination camp
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Fascinated and horrified, she read her first book about the Holocaust, the diary of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto. Its matter-of-fact entries included news of more and more people being crowded into the ghetto and more and more restrictions being put on them. Czerniakow’s last entry came on the day the mass deportations to the concentration camps began. He sat down and wrote two letters, one to his wife and one to the Jewish Council, then took a cyanide pill and ended his life, writing, “They are demanding that I kill the children of my people with my own hands. There is nothing for me to do but die.”

Joanna Millick often leads MIR travelers to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including its gas chambers ruins <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Joanna Millick often recommends MIR travelers to Poland include a stop at Auschwitz-Birkenau; here the ruins of a gas chamber 
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Bearing WitnessThus began an interest that would help to define Joanna as a person. She read everything she could find about the Holocaust, and talked about it with her friends, even when they didn’t share her views.

On her return from her year in the U.S., Joanna studied International Relations at Warsaw University and worked part time as a freelance guide around Poland. One day as she was working with a class of high school kids, she got a call to drop everything and take over a group from the American Jewish Congress who were unhappy with their guide. She met them in Krakow and accompanied them on their tour to Auschwitz.

“It was so inspiring, such a sobering moment for me. As a youth, you feel you are the center of the universe…”

Telling Our StoriesNow, years later, Joanna helps plan trips – and sometimes leads them – for Jewish travelers searching for their roots in vanished shtetls across the Pale of Settlement. 

“It is a powerful experience to be with people as they find where their family is buried, rediscovering forgotten cemeteries that nobody has visited since 1945.”

This Jewish cemetery in Krakow's Kazimierz district is a pilgrimage point for Joanna's MIR travelers <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

This Jewish cemetery in Krakow’s Kazimierz district is a pilgrimage point for Joanna’s MIR travelers
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

That seems to be what Joanna loves most about working with travelers.

“I feel like I am holding on to all their stories as the people go by,” she says.

With her combination of panache and compassion (what she calls “Slavic soul”), Joanna Millick is a brilliant tour manager, co-worker, and friend.

Friends say that Joanna Millick's delightful spirit transcends countries and continents <br>Photo credit: Joanna Millick

Joanna Millick with her MIR tour group wearing chadors at a mosque in Iran 
Photo credit: Joanna Millick

Travel to Poland with MIRYou can travel to Joanna’s beloved homeland on MIR’s scheduled tours to Poland – and perhaps even tour with her at Christmastime. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Joanna Millick. She’s wearing a scarf from her homeland, Poland.)

PUBLISHED: July 22, 2014

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  • DOUGLAS VAN DORPE

    JOANNA,
    I really enjoyed reading about you, Poland, and the Holocaust memorials and sites…You are a beautiful woman and a great person…makes me more determined than ever to sign up with you to tour Warsaw, Poland, Krakow, and any other places on your Christmas Tour…just got to figure a way to get out of Tucson over Christmas time….and when I might be able to do it.
    DOUG in Tucson