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.
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.
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!”
“That made me curious. In those days, nobody talked about what had happened to Poland’s Jews.”
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.”
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…”
“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.”
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.
(Top photo credit: Joanna Millick. She’s wearing a scarf from her homeland, Poland.)
PUBLISHED: July 22, 2014