Roberto Benigni (left) and Rubino Romeo Salmoni
07/12/2011 AT 09:00 AM EDT
Rubino Romeo Salmoni, the real-life inspiration for the Oscar-winning 1997 Life Is Beautiful
, about an Italian imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II, died in Rome Sunday. He was 91.
"At Auschwitz I was no longer Rubino Romeo Salmoni, but Jew number A15810, to be exterminated," he later wrote in his memoir In the End, I Beat Hitler
. The book was freely adapted into the screenplay co-written by Roberto Benigni, who directed the film and also won a Best Actor Oscar for it, as a character named Guido Orefice.
In the film, the leading man shields his imprisoned young son from the horrors of the camp but is himself killed. Salmoni survived, though his two brothers did not, reports the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph
As Salmoni wrote of his life, "I'm still here, hale and hearty. I came out of Auschwitz alive, I have a wonderful family, I celebrated my golden wedding anniversary, I have 12 splendid grandchildren – I think I can say I ruined Hitler's plan for me."
The Central Council for Jews in Germany called Salmoni's death a "great loss" to humanity, while Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, hailed him as "a great man who with his courage and determination managed to save himself from the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Romeo was an example for young people and for the whole of Rome."